Sniveling, sneezing, coughing and wiping their hands on everything, kids spread a lot of germs, especially now that they are back in school.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (MDHSS) reported Sept. 3 that since school has started the number of flu-like illnesses treated in the state's hospitals has gone up to about twice the normal rate.
"It's too early to know whether this is a trend," Margaret Donnelly, director of the MDHSS, said. "But it indicates that the new H1N1 flu virus is circulating in our communities and people need to take action. Any places people gather -- schools, offices, factories, government offices -- need to plan now to help limit the spread of flu."
Missouri hospitals reported that the number of flu-like cases went up to about 4 percent of all illnesses treated in the last several days, compared to 2 percent on ordinary days.
"The spike was especially pronounced in southeast Missouri, where nearly 14 percent -- or one of every seven persons treated -- reported flu-like symptoms," according to MDHSS. "The northwest region, which includes Kansas City and St. Joseph, also reported a sudden increase in flu-like illness. The increase in the northwest was to a more modest four percent of cases, but is considered significant because of the much larger population base."
Donnelly said the increase in flu-like illnesses coincides with the beginning of the school year for both grade schools and colleges.
"Younger people have been especially vulnerable to the new H1N1 flu virus, which has become the dominant flu virus throughout the world," according to MDHSS.
MDHSS reported that across Missouri, 47 percent of the flu-like cases treated in hospital emergency rooms were children five to 17 years old -- school age children. "In the northwest region, 60 percent for the flu-like cases were in that age group," says MDHSS.
"So far, most cases of H1N1 flu have been relatively mild and most people recover in a few days without medical treatment. But the virus can cause serious illness, especially among pregnant women, young children and anyone with a weakened immune system," according to MDHSS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says flu seasons can be unpredictable. "This flu season, there are more uncertainties than usual because of the emergence of a new 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (previously called 'novel H1N1' or 'swine flu') that has caused the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years," according to the CDC. "In past years, seasonal flu activity typically did not reach its peak in the U.S. until January or February, but flu activity has occurred as late as May. However, the 2009 H1N1 virus caused illness, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. during the summer months when influenza is very uncommon. So, it is not known when flu activity will increase, when it will be most intense, what viruses will circulate or how long the season might last."
The CDC says an ordinary seasonal flu shot will protect people from at least three types of seasonal flu but will not protect against the H1N1 flu. It is recommended that people receive both a seasonal flu shot and an H1N1 vaccine once it is made available.
Even though seasonal flu shots do not protect against all forms of the virus, the CDC says a flu shot can help boost the immune system to lessen flu-like symptoms if a person gets a flu that is not covered by this season's flu shot.
MDHSS says the simplest and most effective ways to avoid spreading the flu are proper hand washing or using alcohol-based hand cleaners; cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or inside elbow, not with bare hands; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; stay home when sick and remain home until 24 hours after fever subsides without the use of medicine.
MDHSS also recommends those caring for someone with the flu should isolate the person from others and keep a distance from the infected person of three to six feet "to keep from inhaling the virus produced when the person coughs."
People are advised to get a flu shot as soon as possible. "The following groups of people should also plan to receive a vaccination for the H1N1 flu when that vaccine becomes available next month: pregnant women, household contacts and caregivers for children younger than six months of age, health care and emergency medical services personnel, all people from six months through 24 years of age and persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complication from influenza," MDHSS says.
Donnely said both schools and employers need to be watchful for any signs of flu as fall and winter months approach.
"During cold weather, we become much more of an in-door society," Donnelly said. "This leads to closer contact and more opportunities for the virus to spread."
Office supplies that are often used or touched, such as keyboards, buttons on copying machines, computer mice, telephones and desks, can also be cleaned to reduce the spread of flu. MDHSS says normal household cleaning products can be used to clean and reduce infection risks.