Should schools close for swine flu?
Public health officials worldwide are preparing for the onslaught of the fall flu season, expecting swine flu to come back with a vengance. So far, the virus has killed some 700 people around the globe and drug makers are working in a hurry to have a vaccine ready by October.
But that's a good two months after school children -- one of the groups at highest risk for the virus, known as H1N1 -- return to their classrooms. What if an outbreak hits before vaccines are ready? Should schools be closed?
A study in the August issue of the British journal Lancet Infectious Diseases concludes it's a tough call and the decision to close schools depends on how severe the pandemic becomes.
On one hand, closing schools might slow transmission, giving more time for a vaccine to be finished while easing the burden on hospitals. But researchers also said that massive school closures are unlikely to have a major impact on the total cases. And closing schools has some serious economic and social costs, from the crush to a household's income from parents who must take off work to care for a child, to the larger economic impact on workplaces from massive absenteeism. (The economic toll alone: the cost of a 12-week school closure could be between 1 percent and 3 percent of GDP, according to the study. Yikes.)
So far, kids have been disproportionately affected by the virus, with some 60 percent of cases occurring in people 18 or younger.
Back when the outbreak started in the spring, U.S. health officials played it safe, ordering schools with a confirmed case of swine flu to close for a week. But they backed off that policy after it became clear that the virus was spreading rapidly and appeared no more severe than seasonal flu.
Still, medical experts warn the virus may become more severe this fall. Clearly, vaccine timing will be key. While health officials say they hope to have a vaccine by October, there are more questions than answers right now about who gets it and when. Here's an interesting timeline put together by WebMD on some possibilities.
So, for now, what do you think? Could closing schools help stop the flu?
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