As state officials prepare to hustle the first shipments of swine flu vaccine to health care providers and schools next month, they already are too late for many students.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the new vaccine for the H1N1 virus on Tuesday. Nearly 45 million doses should be shipped to states by Oct. 15. In the next few weeks, parents can expect permission slips to come home, asking whether they would like their children to be immunized at their schools.
But bunches of S.C. schoolchildren already will have developed immunity to the virus by then - because they will have contracted and recovered from the flu.
Just as health officials predicted, the number of cases of swine flu spiked shortly after schools opened. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control isn't compiling numbers of H1N1 cases. But about 6 percent of patients at doctors' offices reported influenza-like illnesses, for the week ending Sept. 5, the most recent statistics available.
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That's slightly higher than the percentage of influenza-like illnesses reported at the height of the seasonal flu outbreak last winter. Health officials say nearly all the current cases are the H1N1 virus, not seasonal flu.
"It spiked two weeks ago," said Kim Conant, special needs coordinator for Palmetto Pediatrics in the Columbia area. "Last week, the numbers came down a little bit from the week before, but there's still a lot of flu out there."
Doctors usually notice a surge in virus-related illnesses a couple of weeks after school begins. This year's increase was much higher than in the past, but the numbers didn't reach the threshold to be considered a flu cluster anywhere in the state, according to DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick.
Physicians are treating flu patients who have other underlying health problems with anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu, Conant said. Parents of otherwise healthy kids are told to treat symptoms with over-the-counter drugs and keep children home until 24 hours after the fever fades.
For most patients, the symptoms - which may include fever, body aches, lethargy, cough, runny nose and diarrhea - have lasted only three or four days.
"The fact that we don't hear back from (most of) them means they're going back to school after a few days," Conant said.
The swine flu virus is moving quickly among students in part because it is a new strain and young people have no immunity to it. Experts suspect people 55 and older have been less likely to contract H1N1 because of immunity built up during past outbreaks of a similar strain.
Health officials want to get the H1N1 vaccine to students as soon as possible. DHEC is awaiting federal guidelines on distribution of the vaccine. Doctors' offices, pharmacies and health clinics have pre-registered as potential inoculation sites, said DHEC spokesman Thom Berry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend schools be used as inoculation sites because many school-age children don't have a family doctor or their families don't have time to take them to a physician for shots.
Many South Carolina school districts have agreed to be inoculation sites with varying qualifications:
- Lexington District 3 has offered to provide space and handle the distribution of permission forms, but DHEC workers will give the shots, said Lisa Price, director of health services for the school district.
- Lexington 1 has agreed to allow the inoculations at the schools but prefers they be done after school hours, said district spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill.
- In Richland 1, the schools will work with DHEC to determine the time and day shots are given on the basis of how many families return permission slips and request shots through the schools, said Margie Moore, nursing coordinator for the district.