You’ve probably heard a lot about swine flu: how contagious it is, how it’s expected to be bigger than ever this flu season, how it’s been renamed "H1N1." On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a worldwide pandemic, and ever since, parents have been bracing for the impact.
Philip Tierno, Ph.D., director of Clinical Microbiology and Diagnostic Immunology at Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center, says it’s time to take a big breath. “This is not a special flu,” Tierno says. “The only thing special about it is that it happened off season, and spread like wildfire.” Right now, H1N1 responds well to drugs.
That said, experts like Tierno are afraid that H1N1 may mutate and become more virulent. While there’s no need for panic, every parent should take H1N1 seriously. Here are ten things all parents need to know and do to prepare for this flu:
- Focus on the Obvious: "Everything you need to know to keep your family safe, you learned in kindergarten,” says Dr. Maurice A. Ramirez, a Senior Physician-Federal Medical Officer in the National Disaster Medical System, the founding chairperson of the American Board of Disaster Medicine, and a specialist in emergency and disaster response medical care. “Wash your hands. Take a nap—get plenty of rest. Keep your hands to yourself—don’t share food or utensils, don’t handle other people’s food or let them handle yours. Sneeze or cough into your elbow.”
- Teach Kids that Five Feet is the Magic Number: Tierno knows germs. In fact, he wrote a book on the subject, The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter. His advice is to teach your kids to keep their distance from anyone who is coughing, sneezing, or sniffling, no matter how rude it may seem. “Stand 3–5 feet away from anyone who appears sick, especially when they’re talking, coughing, or sneezing. That’s a good safeguard until you can get out of there,” Tierno says.
- Wipe Down Surfaces Regularly: “It’s not a secret where germs hide,” says Tierno, “They congregate where people congregate.” The most important thing parents can do to keep kids safe is to wash hands religiously. The second most important thing is “focused surface cleaning,” he says. Wipe down the surfaces your family touches the most: the handle of the refrigerator, the handrail of the stairs, and the kitchen and bathroom counters, for example.
- Be Prepared to Take Time Off: According to the WHO, we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. “The reality is that in a real pandemic, 1 in 3 people has the disease or is at least a carrier,” Ramirez says. That means that it’s highly likely that you or someone you know will get sick. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that kids can be contagious for as long as 10 days, but typically are most contagious from the day before they get sick to 5-7 days afterward. They caution parents to keep kids home for 7 days, and at least 24 hours once their fever is gone. Before the flu strikes your family, have a plan as to who will look after a sick child.
- Understand that Quarantine May be Necessary: H1N1 is highly contagious. Tierno says the best way to keep the rest of the family safe is to sequester the child that’s ill. “Confine them to a certain part of the home. If you have more than one bathroom, have them use only one. I hate to say it, but masking is not uncalled for.” If possible, have only one adult visit and care for the sick child.
- Consider the H1N1 Vaccine: A vaccine for H1N1 is in the works. According to the CDC, it may be available as early as October. To be effective, though, kids need two doses, spaced several weeks apart, so they will not be fully protected until late winter. Because the vaccines are being rushed to market, there will also not be that much time for testing them. Discuss with your partner how you feel about the H1N1 vaccine, so you’re prepared to act upon its release.
- Invest in a Can of Lysol: Coughing, sneezing, and talking causes tiny droplets to fall to the ground by gravity, Tierno says. You can combat some of these germs with a can of Lysol with a high alcohol content. Spray it in the center of the room, in a circular motion. That’s a good weapon against something, like flu, that primarily spreads through the air.
- Keep Tabs on Your Child’s Friends: One of the CDC's prevention recommendations for school administrators is “social distancing”: moving desks further apart, dividing classes into smaller groups, holding classes outside or in larger classrooms, and taking other measures to limit each child’s proximity to someone who might be sick. Keeping your child home and locked in her bedroom is obviously over the top, but it makes sense to check with a friend’s parent before a play date to make sure no one in the household is sick, and to keep your child away from any family with cold symptoms. “If we have a deadly flu, everyone stays home,” Tierno says, “Social distancing will become extremely important and it will be enforced.”
- Avoid Public Transportation: If at all possible, the CDC recommends skipping the school bus and public transit during the heart of H1N1 season. Tierno says that when he flies long distance, he wears a mask, “especially if I see someone five rows in front or three on either side who is sick. A mask shouldn’t be seen as so unfriendly. They’re extremely important and no one wants to talk about it.”
- Get the Facts Straight: Although H1N1 is also known as swine flu, it cannot be transmitted by eating pork or spending time on a farm. It is also not transmitted through pool water. The main way H1N1 spreads is through person-to-person contact—usually by being near someone who is sick and is coughing, sneezing, or talking. “Swine flu parties” like the chicken pox parties you remember from childhood, may be all over the Web, but the CDC does not advise them.
You may be tired of hearing the old standard: wash hands regularly. But the truth is, “80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by direct or indirect contact,” Tierno says, and “hands are the most important thing related to contact.” It may not be new and exciting advice, but it’s essential. Teach kids to wash their hands regularly with warm water, for 15-20 seconds. If water is not available, they can use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers. Teach them to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth, since germs spread this way.
Red Flags for H1N1:
If your child becomes sick with flu-like symptoms and experiences any of the following CDC warning signs, seek emergency medical care immediately:
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish or gray skin color
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Not waking up or not interacting
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough