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Think you have the flu? Stay home

Local schools and businesses have seen a recent increase in absences due to what health officials say they believe is the H1N1 (swine flu) virus that raised alarms earlier this year.

Although fears of a pandemic are not a concern at the moment, school and health officials are advising that anyone showing even minor flu symptoms or a slight fever stay home to minimize the risk of infecting others.

Although difficult to confirm cases (the H1N1 swab test costs around $400), local health officials say that swab tests for influenza type-A showing positive results, accompanied by symptoms congruent with H1N1, make a diagnosis of swine flu “highly probable.”

The fact that numerous flu cases are appearing about two months before the traditional onset of seasonal flu adds to the suspicion that the bug affecting the area is indeed the H1N1 virus, said Susie Kleckner, head nurse at the San Juan Basin Health Department (SJBHD).

Officials at Archuleta School District 50 Joint have gone as far as recommending that parents with children presenting with a low-grade fever (below 100) keep their children home. According to District Superintendent Mark DeVoti, “The problem is, it’s looking like the (H1N1) flu is starting with a fever low enough that would not normally be high enough to keep kids at home.”

Another problem is that, according to Kleckner, the H1N1 virus becomes infectious about one to two days prior to the onset of any symptoms, such that people infected with H1N1 could be infecting others while not knowing they are sick.

In the meantime, health officials are advising everyone to take normal personal precautions to decrease chances of getting flu — wash your hands frequently; keep your hands away from your face; cover your sneezes and coughs with your sleeve (not your hand); and avoid others with respiratory illnesses.

School district nurse Maureen Margiotta reiterated DeVoti’s position, saying, “If your child’s fever is 100 degrees, or if you feel their skin and it is hot and clammy, or if they are showing any symptoms of the flu, they need to stay home.”

Symptoms of H1N1 include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Likewise, according to Judy Cole, infectious disease nurse at Pagosa Mountain Hospital, “Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are also symptoms, mostly seen in pediatric cases.”

In some cases, patients infected with the suspected H1N1 virus have exhibited respiratory symptoms without a fever.

Both Kleckner and Cole recommend that if flu sufferers can’t get their fever down and/or are showing signs of dehydration (nausea, vomiting, lack of urine output for over four hours) they should see a doctor. Furthermore, Cole added that the entrance of Pagosa Mountain Hospital has signs posted advising patients who suspect they have the flu to grab a mask and wear it while in the hospital.

Finally, Cole, Kleckner and Margiotta all stressed that anyone with the flu should not return to school or work until the fever has gone down to normal temperatures for at least 24 hours without the aid of medication.

Margiotta acknowledged an increase in suspected H1N1 cases within the district, “Secretaries at the high school are saying they’ve never seen so many kids either calling in or showing up at the health room.”

Margiotta stated, however, that while H1N1 appears to be the culprit, there is no way of knowing for sure. “The truth is, we probably are seeing some H1N1, but without a swab, we can’t know for sure.”

According to Cole, a swab is not authorized by the state unless a patient has been hospitalized for suspected H1N1 infection. Furthermore, Cole said that while “Tier One” vaccines for H1N1 (for health care workers, pregnant women, and children up to age four) are due to be available in Archuleta County, “Stacey Barker at the Health Department has not heard anything,” regarding delivery of the vaccine. Cole added that “Tier Two” vaccines should be available in November, but had no information on availability or exact date of delivery.

Fortunately, the H1N1 virus that has apparently made its way through Archuleta County and reported widespread though 26 states (including Colorado), while nasty (and sometimes fatal), has not appeared to be as severe as initially feared. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that deaths attributed to H1N1 (and other flu strains) remain within normal levels for this time of year.

Still, it is clear that more people are sick than is normal for this time of year and taking precautions to stay clear of the flu is the best course of action. And if, despite precautions, the flu takes hold, local health officials stress that flu-sufferers need to avoid contact with others to prevent further spread of the virus.

“Parents have to know that, if their child is sick, they need to not just keep them home, but keep them isolated and out of public. Don’t take them shopping, don’t take them to daycare, keep them home,” said Margiotta.

Margiotta also wanted to stress that parents need to discourage children from licking their hands after using sanitizing lotions (young children seem to enjoy the taste) and to discourage hands and fingers going into their mouths.

Well ahead of the traditional flu season, H1N1 appears to have made an appearance in Archuleta County in a big way. For further information on H1N1, go to the school district’s Web site at mypagosaschools.com and click on the “H1N1 Information” link. More information can also be found at www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/.

jim@pagosasun.com