Millions of kids, young adults and teachers are returning to classrooms and dorm rooms this week – prime real estate for the spread of H1N1 – and there’s still little agreement on how best to protect against the bug.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services, World Health Organization and vaccine manufacturers have yet to reach an agreement on how to attack and prevent the H1N1 virus.
Among the most confusing points are:
— How many flu shots will you need?
How many times will you need to get poked this year? That depends on who you ask and how old you are.
One shot: The CDC and HHS recommend seasonal flu shots for everyone – especially high risk groups like the very young, very old, health-care workers and those with pre-existing health conditions or weakened immune systems.
Two shots: H1N1 shots (two of them administered about three weeks apart) are recommended for health-care workers, pregnant women, the very obese, parents of children and teens, and children and adults ages 6 months to 24 years old. People older than age 50 do not need H1N1 shots unless they have pre-existing health conditions or weakened immune systems, according to health officials.
Three shots: Certain people are encouraged to get both seasonal flu and H1N1 shots including pregnant women, health-care workers, parents of children and teens, college students and people with underlying health conditions.
Four shots: New this week, some health officials say children under the age of 9 who have never had a flu shot will need four shots. This includes two seasonal flu shots and two H1N1 shots.
— Should infected schools and colleges close?
Although the CDC, HHS and WHO are all recommending thatofficials do not close schools or colleges if a small number of students come down with flu symptoms, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week that all schools and colleges should be ready to offer online courses, should an outbreak occur and closure become necessary.
Still, no organization has yet to define what constitutes a small number of sick students versus an outbreak. Further complicating issues, while America and Britain have said they will not close schools unless “exceptional circumstances” arise, France says it may close schools if as few as three students become ill.
Austria, Germany, Spain and Switzerland say they will close schools on a case-by-case basis.
— Stay home or go to the doctor?
Hoping to avoid some of the mad dashes that led to emergency room overcrowding last year, health officials are recommending that in some cases, the sick should stay home rather than head to a doctor’s office or emergency room.
Why? Because if you go to the emergency room and don’t have H1N1, there’s a good chance you could leave with it.
The only problem with that advice is that health officials also recommend that people with flu-like symptoms obtain a prescription for anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu or Relenza within 72 hours of becoming sick to minimize symptoms and potentially deadly complications.
Doctors say a good rule of thumb is to avoid the doctor if the only symptoms are typical of a cold — runny nose, mild sore throat and cough – and no or very low fever (under 100 degrees).
Seek a doctor’s care if your symptoms include a fever over 100 degrees, cough, body chills and aches, congestion, diarrhea and vomiting.
— Is it safe to travel abroad?
Although the WHO has declared an H1N1 pandemic, there are little if no travel restrictions that have been declared. The U.S. government in July warned against traveling to Argentina due a widespread outbreak in that country, but has stopped short of preventing people from traveling to that country.
The U.S. government also warns that due to increased H1N1 screening procedures in China, anyone who is suspected of having H1N1 or has traveled by air with someone suspected of having H1N1 may be quarantined by the Chinese government for an indeterminable amount of time.
Related: H1N1 Full Coverage
The Associated Press contributed to this report.