The seasonal flu has been lying low this year, but health experts say schools need to take precautions to keep the flu at bay over the rest of the season, especially because the cancellation of flu clinics in several areas could mean that fewer children and school employees have been vaccinated in those communities than last year.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting fewer patient visits to doctors for flu-like illnesses and says that 30 states had virtually no flu activity in November.
Delays in shipments of flu vaccine have forced some health agencies to cancel flu clinics. The 143,000-student Baltimore County, Md., school district, for instance, last month announced that it would cancel three flu clinics for employees.
Julia Graham Lear, the executive director of the Center for Health and Healthcare in Schools at George Washington University in Washington, said the number of unvaccinated children and school employees is probably significant.
“As many as 80 percent of the children [at a school] have to be immunized to offer protection. My bet is the actual number is pretty low,” she said, adding that it was important to vaccinate employees as well because they “serve at the front lines, so to say.”
“Children are great transmitters of the flu, especially younger children because they are not careful about hygiene,” said Susan Wooley, the executive director of the American School Health Association, based in Kent, Ohio.
Ms. Wooley stressed that something as simple as regular hand-washing and teaching children to cover their mouths and noses when they sneeze can make a big difference when it comes to curbing the spread of flu in schools.
According to CDC spokeswoman Lola S. Russell, the United States is expected to receive 80 million doses of flu vaccine by the end of this month, well above the typical projected need for around 75 million doses each year. However, she said, more people than usual could be seeking vaccines, perhaps because of fears of a potential bird flu pandemic, resulting in an increased demand and the perception of a shortage. The CDC, she said, is now studying whether there really is such an increased demand for the vaccine.
The CDC does not place school-age children and school employees, other than those with chronic conditions like asthma, in the priority group for the seasonal flu vaccine in times of a shortage. But some experts, such as Ms. Lear, say that vaccinating children early on could make a difference in preventing the spread of the flu, especially were there to be a flu pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ flu-pandemic plan, released in November, does not prioritize school-age children for a flu vaccine, she pointed out. (“Schools Urged to Prepare for Flu,” Nov. 9, 2005.)
Each school year, there is also a significant population of students and employees who remain unvaccinated because of a fear of needles. “There are adults and children who would rather get sick than face the needle,” said Marian Smithey, a former school nurse who is now the education director of the asthma program for the National Association of School Nurses, which has offices in Castle Rock, Colo., and Scarborough, Maine.
For those students, a nasal-spray vaccine may be the answer.
In November, nurses in Palm Beach County, Fla., gave sprays of the nasal vaccine FluMist to nearly 10,000 students in the 173,000-student school district. Each student received two squirts in the nose.
Marsha J. Fishbane, the school district’s health director, said the whole process was faster than, and much different from, regular vaccination clinics.
“There was no crying that usually goes on with all these shots,” she said, adding that the children clearly appeared to prefer it.