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The flu, or influenza-like illness (ILI), has been reported in all regions of the state, and has taken the lives of at least two New Jersey children, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).

The state’s acting commissioners of Health and Education together extended sympathy to family and friends of those who lost their lives, and urged schools, parents and others to continue to protect students and staff by cleaning, disinfecting and sharing prevention tips.

Flu statistics are high. In the week ending Feb. 10, at the time of this writing, DOH statistics showed ILI led to almost 12 percent of hospital emergency room visits. Some 22 outbreaks of ILI had been reported by New Jersey schools or universities by mid-February; less than last year, but more than previous years.

N.J. State Epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan spoke to School Leader in mid-February about the flu in New Jersey; how schools can help combat it; and the importance of the vaccine.

Q. New Jersey has been affected by the flu. Two young girls are known to have died, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old. Can you quantify how severe the flu has been this season? Typically, when does it abate?

We still are seeing high levels of flu activity throughout the state. It’s widespread in the northeast, central, south. The flu is unpredictable. Usually it’s from October to May, but the state Department of Health monitors the flu all year round. Sometimes we can detect new flu strains, after the season. If anyone has questions, you can see our surveillance reports, updated every Wednesday during the season. (Reports may be found at http://nj.gov/health/cd/statistics/flu-stats/.)

Q. Can you briefly describe the symptoms? Are there emergency warning signs, when someone needs immediate medical attention?

The flu usually presents differently from a bad cold. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, tiredness, body aches, headaches, and can include nausea and vomiting, usually among younger kids. Any time people are concerned about their health they should contact their health care provider, but things to consider include difficulty breathing; pain or pressure in the chest; sudden dizziness or confusion; severe vomiting. For kids, a bluish tinge to the skin, or if they’re not able to keep themselves hydrated.

Q. Do schools need to report flu outbreaks? How many have been reported?

Schools are required to report outbreaks to local health departments, and local health departments will work with the state health department as needed. There have been 22 outbreaks of influenza-like illness reported by schools or universities so far this flu season, compared to 35 last year; two in 2015-2016; and 19 in 2014-2015.

(An outbreak, according to DOH, is an occurrence of disease greater than would otherwise be expected at a particular time and place. Examples of an outbreak reported by a school or university might include several students who exhibit similar symptoms, who are in the same classroom or same wing of a facility, or who attended a common event; or an increase in school absences, with many parents reporting similar symptoms as the reason for absence. A state official said it’s possible not all outbreaks are reported.)

Q. The advice from DOH says to prevent transmission of flu, people should cover coughs and sneezes; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; wash hands frequently, especially after coughing or sneezing; and stay home if sick, especially with a fever. Are there other steps schools specifically should take?

Schools might want to review their sick policy for employees. We strongly encourage people to stay home when they’re sick. In terms of disinfection, think about the way flu is transmitted. It’s generally spread by droplets of spit generated when people cough. Usually soap and water are good for cleaning surfaces, or EPA-registered disinfection. Remind faculty to get the vaccine, be an example to the student body. Get the message out to parents, too.

Q. Are there any steps they can take now to protect for next year?

Same principles for next year. Strongly encourage vaccination among faculty. Look at sick leave and environmental cleaning policies. Preparedness.

Q. There were news reports that the flu vaccine was not effective this year. What does that mean? Should people still get the vaccine?

The main message is – people should still get the flu vaccine. The vaccine protects against three or four different types of flu. We’re seeing the emergence of other types of flu virus; the vaccine protects against that. What’s important to know is, the overall vaccine effectiveness is 36 percent, but the vaccine is even more effective among kids up to age eight; the effectiveness is 59 percent. You can prevent over half of the cases of flu among the children population. As long as the flu is circulating, it’s not too late to get the vaccine. It’s probably the most important intervention people can get.

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