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Expert Q&A

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How canI keep my students healthy during H1N1 outbreak?

Asked by Gina, Virginia

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I'm an elementary school teacher and am worried about H1N1 flu. What can I do to try to keep my students and myself healthy?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. Novel H1N1 influenza (also sometimes called "swine flu") has been detected in the United States since April and is expected to affect millions of people this fall and winter. So far, the groups of people most commonly infected include those under 25 years of age, pregnant women, and people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart problems, neurological disorders or suppressed immune systems. H1N1 flu has already been reported at many schools and colleges and currently is widespread in the Southeast, Alaska and Puerto Rico. A map showing activity levels of H1N1 can be found here. In addition, the CDC has posted extensive guidelines for schools, child care programs and colleges here. Special Report: H1N1 -- Fighting swine flu

There are many practical things you can do to help prevent the spread of H1N1 flu and other illnesses in your classroom:

Follow healthy basic hygiene practices. Encourage students to wash their hands or use a hand sanitizer frequently and to avoid touching the eyes, nose and mouth, where germs can easily enter the body. Remind children to cough or sneeze into a tissue, throw it away and then wash their hands. They can cough into their sleeve or elbow if a tissue is not available. Tissues, sanitizer top school supply lists

Keep surfaces clean. Use a disinfectant to clean commonly shared surfaces at least daily and when visibly soiled. The influenza virus can survive on objects such as books, desks, and doorknobs and can infect others for two to eight hours after settling on these surfaces.

Keep sick students at a distance. Try spacing desks as far apart as possible to avoid close contact between students. It may also be helpful, especially for individuals at high risk for complications from the flu, to stay at least 6 feet away from sick people. Keep children with a fever (over 100 F or 37.8 C, according to the CDC) or flu-like symptoms in a separate room such as the clinic until they are picked up by a caregiver. Use a face mask if available. Dr. Sanjay Gupta offers H1N1 advice for moms and dads

Go home. Sick students and teachers should go home or stay home if they are too ill to participate in classroom activities. In addition, they should not return until any fever has been gone for at least 24 hours (without the aid of fever reducers).

Promote home-based learning. If children feel well enough to study while they're recovering, send some schoolwork home or use an online learning program so they can keep up with lessons.

Play down perfect attendance. Some kids (and parents) try so hard for an end-of-the-year perfect attendance award that it can be tempting to go to school even for a few hours to avoid being counted as "absent." Especially during this cold and flu season, consider making an exception for sick days -- as opposed to missing school days while on a family vacation, for example -- or do away with the perfect attendance recognition completely for the year.

Follow the latest health recommendations. H1N1 guidelines may be a moving target since it is still not well known how the virus will affect individuals and communities. Keep yourself informed about the vaccine, which is expected to be available this fall. High-risk individuals may be advised to take antiviral drugs to treat or prevent infection.

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