Annual battle with the bug a struggle for school-age kids

By Lisa Burnett , Emily Van Zandt Originally Published January 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 18, 2013 at 11:39 a.m.
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More parents than usual are hearing the words they dread most from children during flu season: “I feel sick.”

The 2012-2013 flu season has been a bad one for many across the state, especially young children. Dr. Mark Gustke, a pediatrician with Searcy Medical Center, said this year has been a busy one for the flu in his office.

“It really blew up in November,” Gustke said. “I’d say it peaked in the month of November and beginning of December, and it’s actually improved in just the last few weeks.”

Gustke said this season’s flu virus has been causing much more vomiting in young patients than it has in years past.

After results from a nasal swab indicate the flu virus, parents are sent home with instructions on how to use medications such as ibuprofen, saline spray and cough syrup to ease flu symptoms.

“And of course, plenty of fluids and plenty of rest,” Gustke said.

Valerie Besears, president of the Arkansas School Nurses Association, said the best way for parents and teachers to help students protect themselves from the flu boils down to one thing: “Handwashing, handwashing, handwashing.”

“It is 100 percent the best thing that you can do,” Besears said. “Soap and water is the best, but if you don’t have access to that, you can use over-the-counter hand sanitizers. Also, coughing and sneezing not in your hands, if you can help it.”

Besears said that more children than in previous years have come with flu symptoms into her office in the Fort Smith School District, where she works as a nurse.

“The children usually have headaches or a fever,” Besears said. “Many times, they’ll just say that they’re not feeling well.”

School nurses are limited in what they can do to help children who come in with flu symptoms, Besears said. Policies vary from

district to district, with some allowing nurses to administer over-the-counter fever-reducers such as Tylenol, and others simply allowing students to rest until parents can come take them home.

Laquinta Washington, school nurse at Pulaski County Special School District’s Dupree Elementary School in Jacksonville, said that in her four years of working at the school, and this year in particular, the number of students with the flu and flu-like symptoms has increased.

“For the past four days, we’ve had quite a few students that have had to go home with flu-like symptoms,” Washington said. “A couple of our students and staff members have been confirmed with having the flu.”

Washington said that in past years, the flu and its symptoms were usually sporadic, but this year it seems that students are getting the virus nonstop.

“We’re asking teachers to encourage handwashing to students,” Washington said.

She also sent a pamphlet of information home with students asking parents to keep their children at home if they aren’t feeling well.

“A child can come back to school whenever they are fever-free for 24 hours,” Washington said.

Cynthia Hines, facilitator of health services for the Pulaski County Special School District, said Dupree Elementary has been the only school in the district so far that has had a sizable number of students sick, with a toal of 17 students going home sick on Jan. 10 and 11. For the past several years, the district has offered a clinic from October to early December where students can get the flu shot or flu mist for free with their parents’ permission.

“We try especially in our elementary schools to encourage participation, sending flyers home and talking it up,”

Hines said, “but all we can

do is give parents the information. We can’t make them participate.”

To help prevent the flu, Gustke recommends that healthy children 6 months to 18 years should routinely get a flu shot, along with people who are around an infant unable to get the vaccine. Though the shot may not 100 percent prevent people from getting any type of flu, Gustke said, it can prevent them from ending up in the hospital.

“Those less than 5 years [old] are at a greater risk for having secondary problems from the flu,” Gustke said.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists flu symptoms as including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and vomiting and diarrhea. The virus is typically spread by droplets made when an infected person coughs,

sneezes or talks, and those droplets land in the mouths or noses of people nearby, according to the CDC. The virus can also be spread by touching a surface or object with the flu virus on it, then touching your mouth, eyes or nose, according to the CDC.

The Associated Press reports that 13 people have died from the flu in Arkansas so far this season. Although seasons in 2010 and 2011 were fairly mild, more than 50 people died in Arkansas from the flu in 2009.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff writer Lisa Burnett can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or lburnett@arkansasonline.com.

Online Reporter Lisa Burnett can be reached at 501-378-3887 or lburnett@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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