It’s not ‘just the flu,’ so let’s take precautions
As a physician, I tend to brace myself each year for the upcoming influenza season. Office and hospital visits for respiratory illnesses will increase, and while some people will get vaccinated against flu, others will say, "No, I'm healthy. I don't need that."
Most people don't appreciate how serious seasonal flu illness can be, especially if they or a member of their family haven't experienced the potential complications personally. Each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 20 percent of the population is infected with the flu, resulting in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and nearly 36,000 deaths.
Many people mistakenly think that only the elderly are at risk for flu illness. While our keiki are less likely to die from influenza, during most flu seasons one of every 10 schoolchildren is infected by flu virus. Unfortunately, some of these children will become very ill and require hospitalization. Nationally, the 2003-04 flu season was sadly memorable for the high number of flu deaths among children that year. There were more than 150 flu-associated deaths in children that year. No flu-associated deaths in children were reported in Hawaii.
Schoolchildren who get the flu are major spreaders of flu to other people in their households, including children too young to be vaccinated and grandparents with health conditions that increase their chances of serious problems if they get the flu. Just ask any parent - I'm sure they can confirm how easily illness spreads around their household from just one child.
This doesn't have to happen. Flu vaccine can prevent serious illness in 70 to 90 percent of people who receive it. Immunizing schoolchildren has been shown to reduce illness not only among the kids themselves but also among their family members.
"Protect Hawaii's Keiki: Stop Flu at School" is a partnership between the state Department of Health, public and private schools, physician groups, health volunteers and insurers to help children and families stay flu-free. Most elementary and middle school students will be able to receive free flu vaccine at school during the day through this voluntary program. Parent or guardian permission is required.
Nearly 90 percent of elementary and middle schools statewide have chosen to participate, and for good reason.
Infections like flu spread faster at school than anywhere else because schoolchildren's desks are very close together and kids can easily share their germs through coughing and sneezing. We've been fortunate in the past year to have a mild flu season, especially compared to the mainland, with only a handful of reported flu-like illness school outbreaks and none confirmed as actually caused by flu. However, the potential for school flu outbreaks that can spread to the community always exists. Our hope is that the "Stop Flu at School" program will prevent such events.
Fear of needles shouldn't keep you or your child from getting flu vaccine anymore. One type of flu vaccine, called FluMist, is simply sprayed up the nose - no "shot" involved.
We hope that with free flu vaccine at school, parents will be able to make the right choice to protect their kids without having to worry about how they can do this and juggle their work schedules.
Information packets are being sent to schools this month. The deadline to submit signed parental consent forms is Sept. 5.
As a pediatrician and an infectious disease specialist, what would be my advice to parents? It's time to get informed about the choices you have for protecting the health of your children. Talk to your child's doctor about the flu vaccine or call the Aloha United Way 2-1-1 hotline. You can also visit www.stopfluatschool.com to get more information about Hawaii's school vaccination program.
Working together, we can Stop Flu At School!
Sarah Park, M.D., is the acting state epidemiologist with the Department of Health.