For many parents, the revelation that a swine flu pandemic has gripped the country is something they’ve never heard before. After all, the last flu pandemic was 41 years ago, before the majority of parents were even born.
So it only makes sense that parents are concerned and following the latest news about swine flu, also known as the novel H1N1 virus, quite carefully. Researchers have already identified one of the groups most at risk to the virus that first surfaced last year in Mexico as kids from 6 months old to young adults 24 years of age. That accounts for all school-aged children in the country.
“Parents are always concerned,” said Amy Garcia, RN, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. That’s a good thing, said Garcia, who added that parents who have not had their children vaccinated for the flu in previous years should take a different course of action this year.
“Parents over the years have relaxed about vaccinations and this is not the time for that,” she said. “Those who are lucky enough to be able to travel overseas may have seen some of these diseases (in countries where vaccinations are not as available and common) . . . Anything that can be prevented should be prevented.”
Garcia and Francisco Alvarado-Ramy, supervisory medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control, said it’s important for parents to discuss the issue with their doctors. “Talk to your pediatrician, get informed, discuss the timing of the vaccination,” he said. “They should have the vaccine available as early as late September to mid-October, so they should start having a family discussion.”
Although he stressed the decision to have a child vaccinated is a personal one for each parent, there’s no doubt where the CDC stands on the subject. “We are in support of it, not only for the pandemic, but also for the seasonal flu vaccine that also will be available,” Alvarado-Ramy said.
Pediatrician Dr. David Kimberlin of Birmingham, Ala., who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases, put it even more bluntly. “My recommendation is to get vaccinated. Vaccines save lives. So the best way to go is to take advantage to what is available to us,” he said.
Kimberlin said he is urging his own patients to get the seasonal flu vaccine as soon as it is available, as we enter what could be one of the most complicated and confusing flu seasons ever. “We have pandemic flu, which has so many different names, and on top of that we have the regular flu,” he said. “So the sooner they can get one of the issues off the table, the easier it will be to focus in on a pretty urgent message (when the swine vaccines are available).”
Kimberlin said his advice to parents is the same for all kids between 6 months and 24 years of age.
- Keep your child home if they have fever. Like all strains of influenza, swine flu is spread by sneezing, coughing and hands that aren’t clean.
- Don’t let your child return to school too soon. The rule is to stay home a full 24 hours after fever has return to normal without the use of any medication, the experts emphasized.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Don’t have one? Use the elbow-out method of sneezing into your upper sleeve. Do not sneeze into your hands.
- Clean your hands after sneezing or coughing. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based cleaner.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. This is the fastest way to spread influenza, in case you didn’t wash your hands or didn’t do it properly.
One particular area of concern is infants younger than 6 months who cannot take the vaccine, Kimberlin said. “This is a special situation that’s been recognized by the CDC.”
- Protect everyone else first. Make sure everyone in the household gets the swine flu vaccination. “You want to create a cocoon of safety for the baby in that household,” Kimberlin said.
- Follow the other safety precautions. That means tissue for sneezes and coughs are even more important and hand-washing should be done religiously, he said.
- Avoid unnecessary trips with the baby. Garcia, of the school nurses association, argues that flu season, particularly one with a looming pandemic on top of regular flu, is one where “it is a good idea to keep babies out of crowds.”
Despite the news of researchers and governments moving as quickly as possible to get the swine flu vaccine manufactured and tested, Garcia, Alvarado-Ramy and Kimberlin all voiced strong support for the process of manufacturing influenza vaccines.
“I will say I have no concerns at all with the safety review process that vaccines of all kinds go through,” Kimberlin said. “The vaccine testing mechanisms that we have now are more sophisticated and more thorough than they’ve ever been in history – and they were pretty good in the past. We are very well prepared to develop the vaccines – that has already happened – and to test vaccines in clinical trials – that is going on now – to determine they are safe.”