Use common sense to avoid flu

Published 9:34 pm Monday, September 21, 2009

This year’s flu season has everyone’s attention with the emergence of the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as the swine flu. The virus seems more contagious and hits the young more than other flu outbreaks, and of course when the news reports fatalities we all get worried.

State health officials are closely monitoring the spread of the flu this year. They say that most people affected by this strain of flu get well in a couple of days without the need of an emergency room visit. They urge common sense ways of reducing the risk of catching it, such as washing hands frequently and covering your mouth and nose during coughs and sneezes with an arm instead of a hand. Most importantly, the state health department says people should stay home when symptoms show up, especially children.  

Alabama is unfortunately at the forefront of this year’s H1N1 flu outbreak because Alabama schools begin earlier than most of the country. Any teacher will tell you that a classroom might as well be a laboratory when it comes to viruses; they seem to grow well there even though exceptional efforts are made to reduce their spread. Kids forget to cover their mouths when coughing or end up sharing their lunches and crayons, and no amount of antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizer will stop contagion completely.  

State school officials say student absences have about doubled in Alabama schools, going from an average absentee rate of about 3.5 percent to 7 percent. They can’t be sure that all these absences are caused by the flu, but there are indications that they are. Several schools have already been closed for a period due to outbreaks since the start of classes, though school officials are reluctant to shut schools as they did last spring. They say schools will close only if the virus becomes more lethal or if student and teacher absences become so high that keeping school doors open becomes unfeasible.  

The problem with flu outbreaks in schools is exacerbated by the lack of school nurses in Alabama. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there should be a nurse for every 750 students. In our state, we have one school nurse to about every 1,100 students. Many times when nurses are available, they have to work multiple schools. 

For years, teachers, principals and school secretaries have been acting as nurses, dispensing drugs and prescriptions to students, taking care of sick children until a parent can come by and pick them up. This has been no small burden; more and more children have chronic conditions like asthma and allergies that call for daily prescriptions. An administrator or teacher ends up dispensing the drugs when there is no nurse. During a health problem like the flu, the deficits of this arrangement are highlighted. 

Recognizing this problem, last year the Legislature passed the school nurse act, setting the benchmark of one state-funded school nurse for every 500 students. In the last session, the law was amended to allow licensed practical nurses to become school nurses as long as they are under the supervision of a registered nurse. Changing the certification allowed for more nurses to be placed in schools because of lesser salaries, and as long as there is proper supervision, quality care will be maintained.   

As with any Alabama school improvement effort, it will take time for the funding to come. Alabama has the lowest taxes in the nation, and the two main sources of school revenue, the state sales and income taxes, have been hard hit by the recession. As funding allows, we will put more nurses into our schools until the goal is met. Until then, health and school officials will do the best they can, in the tradition of Alabama resourcefulness.  

The Alabama Department of Health and Department of Education are working together to offer mass school vaccinations to the state’s 748,000 students by late fall. Every child can get a vaccination as long as they have permission from a parent, and school employees can get a shot as well.  

However, because the flu season started so much earlier in Alabama with the August opening of school, the flu outbreak may already be in full stride when the vaccine becomes available.   

Health and school employees are working hard to reduce H1N1 and other flu cases. We need to help them by taking the common sense steps to stop its spread.