Swine Flu and Schools Closings: FAQ

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Why are some schools closed because of the swine flu and not others?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has left the decision of school closings up to local officials, and therefore decisions about school closings can vary considerably from community to community.

Several schools in New York are closed because of higher-than-normal percentages of students absent with flu symptoms, which would be in keeping with CDC guidelines.

What is the current CDC guidance on closing schools because of swine flu?

The CDC is no longer advising schools to close because of a confirmed or suspected case of H1N1 swine flu. They say that school closing is not recommended unless there is likely to be a high percentage of absenteeism among staff or students.

Initially, the CDC had recommended closing schools for confirmed or suspected cases of H1N1 swine flu because the preliminary reports from Mexico suggested the disease was much more serious than seasonal flu, especially among young people.

Since then, further information has shown that the vast majority of cases of H1N1 swine flu are mild. In addition, the CDC notes that the virus has become well established among communities in the United States, so closing schools to slow the spread is not likely to have as much impact as they had first hoped.

Why have officials focused on closing schools and not other public places?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, one-fifth of the U.S. population attends or works in schools. Schools also provide a perfect environment for exchanging germs. They feature large numbers of people packed closely together, and school children in general have a lot of social contact with one another. They touch each other often, and share books, toys and food.

Some evidence from past pandemics and seasonal flu outbreaks suggests that school closings can help slow the spread of the disease. A slower spread of flu means that public health authorities have more time to counter the outbreak by increasing the local supply of antiviral medications and working to develop a vaccine.

However, there are still many unanswered questions about the overall effectiveness of closing schools when fighting flu. Scientists are not sure of the proper timing -- when a school should close, how long it should remain closed, and whether school closings are still effective when flu has become well established in the community.

Swine Flu vs. Seasonal Flu: What's the Difference?

Why do schools not close for seasonal flu?

Schools generally do not close for seasonal flu outbreaks because seasonal flu viruses circulate widely among the community, and therefore school closings would have less impact on slowing the disease. The flu season typically lasts for around five months, and repeated closings would be extremely disruptive on children and families.

In addition, seasonal flu takes its greatest toll on the elderly, not school children or young, healthy adults. Nursing homes worry much more about seasonal flu outbreaks than schools do.

Finally, there is a flu vaccine available every year that offers some protection from seasonal flu viruses. The CDC recommends that all school-age children receive the vaccine. Flu outbreaks are milder and spread at a slower pace when many people in the population are vaccinated.