Influenza contributes to student absences

Friday, October 16, 2009 | 5:23 p.m. CDT; updated 6:05 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 16, 2009

COLUMBIA — About 70 Columbia Public Schools students missed school this week because of influenza or flu-like symptoms, said Lori Osborne, health services coordinator for the school district. The number is based on confirmed cases — it is uncertain how many cases go unreported on a weekly basis.

"We go by parent call-ins," Osborne said. "School secretaries ask parents what symptoms their child has, and that's all we can really go by right now."

Osborne said it is difficult to determine how many student absences are due to illness because attendance is based on a variety of factors.

"It's hard for us to see the true picture because absences include suspensions, illnesses, sporting events, doctor appointments and more," she said.

Osborne said she collects numbers from attendance secretaries every week but looks at the totals daily to see which schools have ill students. She said how influenza hits schools is very hit or miss.

"We don't know how it's sweeping the community or if location has anything to do with it," she said.

Tammy Adkins, Rock Bridge High School nurse, said Missouri is no longer testing for the H1N1 strain. Instead, people are just being tested for seasonal influenza.

"They're being tested for influenza A, and if they have that strain, there's a lot of assumption that it's H1N1," she said.

Osborne said people are being diagnosed based on their symptoms, which include high fever, body aches, cough and sore throat.

Adkins said Rock Bridge has had an increase in absences this week, but they cannot all be attributed to illness.

"There's a lot of exaggeration," she said. "I've had several kids come in and say the school is going to close down if students keep getting sick."

The H1N1 flu vaccine has not yet been distributed to Rock Bridge or any other schools in the district, but when it arrives students may receive free vaccinations with parental consent. Adkins said the seasonal influenza vaccine is currently available for staff, but students can get the vaccine through their physicians.

According to the Boone County Health Department's Web site, 900 doses of H1N1 flu vaccine arrived in Columbia on Oct. 13. The nasal spray vaccine, FluMist, is expected to arrive in shipments and the first batch was distributed to family medicine physicians, pediatricians and hospitals.

Osborne said the district is enforcing the policy of students and faculty to stay home when they start to feel the first sign of symptoms. Staying home means more than just missing school — Osborne said people should avoid athletic and social events as well.

"We know that it's contagious, so we're encouraging people not to share water bottles or snacks and to wash hands frequently," she said.

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