We're well into back-to-school prep, buying glue sticks and comparing lunchboxes. But this year, the process is a bit out of the ordinary. It includes getting up to speed on what our family should do if my child gets swine flu. Last spring, the federal government ordered schools to close if they had a student ill with the new H1N1 flu. Flu experts expect there will be many more H1N1 flu cases this September and October, ahead of the beginning of the usual annual flu season. School-age children are much more likely to get the new flu than are adults, because they have no immunity. We parents need expert advice right now if we're going to be ready for this new back-to-school drill. September is less than a month away!
New flu guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut parents a bit of a break. Because many of last spring's flu cases were mild, the feds decided it makes more sense to keep schools open when students have swine flu. Here's the gist of the new flu rules:
* If your child gets the flu, keep her or him home for at least 24 hours after the last fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The stay-home rule applies to sick parents, too. The goal is to minimize the spread of flu viruses at school and work.
* If you have a child under age 5 or a family member with a chronic medical condition like asthma, check with your doctor now about how best to care for them during this flu pandemic. Pregnant women also appear to be extra vulnerable, so if you're pregnant, now's the time to ask your doctor for a swine flu game plan. A swine flu vaccine won't be available until October at the earliest.
* Ask your doctor about antiviral medicines like Tamiflu that can reduce the severity of swine flu.
Reduce the spread of the flu virus by having the sick family member wear a face mask and stay isolated from other family members as much as possible or by having just one family member be the caregiver for sick family members.
* If a family member is sick with the flu, keep school-age brothers and sisters home for five days from the time the household member becomes sick. This new advice is designed to reduce the virus spread among schoolchildren, but it will be tough on working parents. Now's a good time to check to see if your employer has a pandemic flu plan that will let you work at home. The federal government has compiled scads of information for employers and employees on how to deal with pandemic flu in the workplace.
* If the flu pandemic gets worse this fall, state and local health departments may change the rules, asking that sick children stay home for at least seven days. For us parents, this is yet another good reason to have the family flu plan figured out now.
The CDC has a flu hotline you can call for more information: 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636). There's also a super-flu Web site that consolidates pandemic flu advice from various federal agencies.
I'm luckier than many parents because I can work pretty much anywhere I have a laptop and Wi-Fi access, but having kids home for weeks at a time is certain to cut into my productivity. I've got face masks stockpiled, but I need to get up to speed on other particulars of how to care for someone sick with swine flu. So I'm adding those to my back-to-school to-do list now.