US discourages quick school closure for swine flu

* School closures not recommended unless flu gets severe

* Slowing the spread of virus is futile, guidelines say

WASHINGTON, Aug 7 (Reuters) - New U.S. guidelines for the pandemic of H1N1 swine flu released on Friday discourage the early closure of schools, unless the virus becomes worse.

“We know now that closing schools is not the best option in most cases,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in a telephone interview.

If the virus starts to spread faster when school starts again this month and next, officials should try other means to slow its spread, such as keeping students more widely separated and stressing hand hygiene, the guidelines recommend.

“The potential benefits of preemptively dismissing students from school are often outweighed by negative consequences, including students being left home alone, health workers missing shifts when they must stay home with their children, students missing meals, and interruption of students’ education,” the guidelines read.

Schools for pregnant mothers and disabled children are an exception, as such people are at high risk from flu.

About 55 million students attend 130,000 public and private schools in the United States, and and 7 million staff work there, according to the Department of Education.

Schools are a breeding ground for infections, but studies have shown that unless they are closed for the entire flu season, closing them only delays an inevitable spread.

“The decision to dismiss students should be made locally and should balance the goal of reducing the number of people who become seriously ill or die from influenza with the goal of minimizing social disruption,” the guidelines read.

Sick students should be sent home promptly, they stress. Staff should try innovative ways to keep students apart if flu does show up at a school -- for instance, spreading desks apart and keeping classes from mixing.


H1N1 swine flu is unstoppable, according to the World Health Organization, which has also given up on trying to get a precise count of cases.

“It continues to spread around the world, and it continues to act like it did in the United States in the spring,” Frieden said. “It is not changing to become more deadly.”

Experts consider the pandemic to be a moderate one at this point, meaning it can kill people and can put many into the hospital, sometimes for weeks at a time with severe illness. But most people get a mild illness and get better with little or no treatment.

However, most people appear to have no immunity to the virus, which means that more people are likely to become infected than usually do with a seasonal strain of influenza. That means more sicknesses and deaths just because more people overall will be infected.

And the strain could change at any moment into a more serious form.

Vaccine makers have started rolling out their first batches of vaccine but U.S. officials do not expect any public vaccination until mid-October and they do not expect those most at risk from H1N1 -- pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, children and young adults -- to be fully vaccinated until the first week of December.