Pandemic Planning

What would happen if a major influenza outbreak swept the country? Because of concerns about avian flu many people are asking that question. Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports that Harris County health officials are helping area school districts consider how they would react to an influenza pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that a flu pandemic would make 30% of the population ill. The figure could be 40% among school age children. Karl Boland with the Harris County Department of Education says schools would face a real dilemma.

"We tell people when children are very sick stay home, now by the same token, we're in the business of education, we want kids at school."

A pandemic could keep students out of school for weeks, schools could even be closed. Schools then face a number of problems.

"As any of us who have young children know children are very effective and efficient at spreading germs."

Elizabeth Love is with Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services...

"Children, particularly those in a school setting may be the primary transmitters of influenza during a pandemic. I think most importantly schools need to not only plan to protect their staff and their students; they need to address continuity of instruction. That is how they can minimize disruption to the learning process during times of high absenteeism or potential school closures."

County health officials have the power to close schools for health reasons and Love says making that decision at the right time can affect more than just education.

"Recent mathematical modeling from the National Academy of Sciences has shown that in the absence of any other community control measures, such as the use of anti-virals or vaccines, the closure of schools alone could decrease the attack rate of influenza in a community by up to 33%."

Love says local and state health authorities would work in conjunction with schools districts to determine when to close and reopen schools.

"We'll be basing our decision on various aspects of the pandemic, such as the number of cases in our community, the type of spread, how its spread, the geography of the disease. There's no cookie cutter, we can't say 'we'll do this' with a hundred percent certainty."

Districts should consider ways to use the internet, mail, radio or television to continue teaching during a pandemic. Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services and the county Department of Education held a seminar to help school district understand and to prepare plans to react to a pandemic.

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