Back-to-school flu surge expected

Health officials are preparing for a possible surge in swine flu cases once Cayman’s schools reopen.

Reports of new swine flu cases have levelled off, according to the Medical Officer of Health Kiran Kumar, but he said there could be a possible surge in new cases as children return to school and are in close proximity to other children who may be infected.

‘We will be reaching out to parents and teachers in the next few weeks, arming them with information on how they can help prevent the spread of the flu,’ Dr. Kumar said.

However, children who do fall victim to swine flu will not need to stay out of school as long as originally thought.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recently revised its advice for how long those who are sick with the H1N1 virus should stay away from others.

‘The CDC has shortened the time period, which may reduce some of the pandemic’s absence burden on businesses and schools,’ he said.

The original guidelines recommended that people with flu symptoms that included fever stay home for seven days after the onset of illness or for 24 hours after symptoms resolve, whichever was longer. The new guidance urge people to stay home at least 24 hours after they are free of a fever (without using fever-reducing medication).

A fever is defined as 100°F and above and in most cases lasts from two to four days.

The guidance also applies to camps, mass gatherings, and other community settings, the guidelines read.

The new recommendations do not apply to healthcare settings and people working or visiting healthcare facilities should continue to observe the previous, longer-period exclusion guidance, Dr. Kumar said.

‘The CDC also emphasised that more stringent and longer exclusions may be needed for sick people who will return to settings where they have contact with people who have underlying medical conditions, such as camps for children with asthma or day-care centres and schools that children younger than five attend,’ he said.

Also, people who have had influenza-like illness and then return to work, school, or other community settings should continue to practice good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene and avoid close contact with people they know to be at increased risk of influenza-related complications.

The Health Services Authority has added a flu email and message system – [email protected] – to allow the public to get direct responses to their flu queries. This complements the 24-hour flu hotline 926-2812, which is manned by HSA staff.

International health officials are also working on a vaccination programme that they will roll out as soon as an H1N1 and the seasonal flu vaccines become available. Separate doses are required for seasonal flu and the pandemic H1N1 flu.

While Dr. Kumar expects the usual uptake on the seasonal flu vaccine, regarding the new H1N1 vaccine, he said, ‘Of course we would like to be able to vaccinate our entire population, and we have asked for sufficient stocks to do this.

‘However, due to the demand, the vaccine cannot be produced for the entire global population at one time. We will therefore vaccinate vulnerable groups first, and others will follow as per the UK Health Protection Agency guidelines.’

By 5 August, there had been 87 official confirmed cases of swine flu in Cayman, but officials estimated that there could have been a total of 2,000 cases.