New York Students Struggling with Flu Viruses
    2009-05-23 05:53:16     Xinhua      Web Editor: Xu Leiying
by Xinhua Writer Wang Jiangang

Coughing, sneezing and nose running, an increasing number of primary and middle school students in New York City are suffering from flu-like symptoms and missing classes, which made parents concerned and the city officials close schools with high absentee rates.

The A/H1N1 flu, which was first detected in New York City in late April, has so far sickened 240 people with confirmed infection of the flu virus, 56 of whom have been hospitalized.

However, the hearts and thoughts of all New Yorkers go to tens of thousands of school children, as the city's 36 public and private schools with large number of sick students have already been closed over the flu scare.


On April 24, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) dispatched a team of investigators to St. Francis Preparatory School, a private, independent Catholic college preparatory school in Queens Borough, after 150 students complained of symptoms consistent with H1N1 flu. Several of the students had recently traveled to Mexico. Eight of the school cases were said to be "probable" H1N1 flu by New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden on April 25. On April 26, in an advisory the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that the Queens cases are indeed associated with the H1N1 virus. On April 27 federal officials confirmed 20 new cases.

The news has made a citywide ripple among parents. Shortly after that, all schools began distributing ABCs of H1N1 flu to students and parents, which, to some extent, made parents even more worried.

On May 12, a teacher at I.S. 5, who prefers to be anonymous, told Xinhua, some 12 percent of the students were absent from their classes the previous day. She said many students were coughing, sneezing and nose running while studying in the classroom.

"I am worried and wander if I should call in sick myself," she said.

"If the school does not close, I guess I will be sick myself very soon, as the classroom is small and H1N1 flu virus could be spread easily through aerosol transmission and small droplets," she said. "Besides, the kids don't know how to protect themselves and can be infected very easily."

She began consulting her doctor and bought some medicines including TamiFlu which are believed to be effective in preventing and treating H1N1 flu.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally ordered the closing of I.S. 5 in the aftermath that 241 student were absent.

Over the past few days, New York City has been enouncing daily the closings of schools which it thought not good for school children to continue their studies.

While in the emergency unit of Elmhurst Hospital Center in the most flu-hit Queens, sick students and worried parents are lining up in long queues waiting to see the doctors these days. Many of the sick have begun wearing masks to avoid being infected or vice versa.


Are all the school children suffering from flu-like symptoms already infected by H1N1 flu virus? Experts do not think so.

"Right now as New York moves from winter into spring, we always see increases in respiratory infections," Joan E. Nichols, an infectious disease expert with the University of Texas Medical Branch told Xinhua. "Not all of these infections are H1N1 and as we survey the population, most have been shown to be flu A ( seasonal) or flu B (seasonal) and not H1N1."

Nichols believes that New York City is seeing seasonal flu combined with H1N1 and other viruses. "H1N1 is not the only reason we are seeing increases."

Although parents with sick children understand their kids are not in "very bad conditions," they still wonder if the children's illness could be turning worse if they continue sending them to schools in an environment with many coughing and sneezing classmates.

"I don't know what to do," said a parent outside a private hospital in Queens. "My kid has not recovered fully since she was falling ill seven days ago, so I have to bring her to the doctor to see if she's got the swine flu (H1N1) virus or others."

"I guess she's been infected by some other kind of virus, but what is that?" he asked. "Doctors say viruses can evolve.I don't want to send my kid to school in case the viruses evolve, mix with each other and form a new fatal virus."


In order to monitor the flu situation, the city's Health Department and the Department of Education are working closely to monitor flu-like illness in schools. This information is collected timely from school administrators and evaluated by the city's Office of School Health. If a school nurse reports a sudden or sustained increase in flu-like illness -- documented fever accompanied by cough or sore throat -- among students seen in a school's medical room, the Health Department may recommend closing the school.

The United Federation of Teachers of New York has reportedly set up 11 hotlines in the five boroughs of the city to gather information on school flu outbreaks and school closings.

The New York Department of Education is now posting daily attendance rates for every public school in the city.

The Department of Education announced Wednesday that it would begin posting daily attendance numbers for every public school in the city on its website.

However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the decisions to close individual schools are not based on absenteeism, and the city's Schools Chancellor Joel Klein described in a letter to parents how the city decides to close schools.

"We're posting now the absentee rates on the Department of Education website, but it doesn't really tell you anything," said Bloomberg. "The real issue is how many people are showing up in school with fever and that tends to be very low and people should be sending their kids to school if the kids don't have symptoms."

The mayor said the city also considers the severity of the flu in each community by monitoring hospitals.

Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, who has already been hand- picked by President Barack Obama to chair the CDC but is continuing working in New York to deal with the tense situation, looks for "clusters" of illness, as well as a spike in the number of students with fevers over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celcius) and other flu symptoms.

Officials said more schools will experience temporary closures in the coming days and weeks. Rather than using a simple rule to close schools, the Health Department is carefully evaluating the circumstances at each one. High absenteeism, by itself, is not a basis for closure.

However, city leaders have responded to mounting criticism of how officials are going about deciding when to close schools in the wake of the H1N1 outbreak over the past few days.


Although school closings in the city have been much talked about and drawn much concern from New Yorkers, city life seems to not be much affected.

Tourists, both from domestic and foreign, seem not to decrease so sharply and continue pouring into the city. Shops and restaurants are still flooded with shoppers and customers. People wearing masks are almost nowhere to be seen in the streets.

"The swine flu virus is not that dangerous as SARS like you experienced in China in terms of death rates, so we don't have to worry too much," said Pete Hankerson, a New Yorker who was shopping at the Fifth Avenue of Manhattan.

"Of course, we must take good care of ourselves and our children as they study together, play together, tease each other and even share food with each other without any awareness or sense of the illness," he said.

"I hope the damn virus leaves us soon as I don't want to hear too much hyper about the swine or avian flu viruses," he said.

However, parents with schooling children still seem no to relax their vigilance with many saying their children must be "caged" at home to "escape any unexpected danger."

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