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Officials: Educating public key to deterring flu

LAWRENCEVILLE - This flu season, it's important to take measures to prevent the spread of the virus, public health officials said.

The H1N1 virus, commonly known as the swine flu, is circulating in the community, said Vernon Goins, spokesman for the East Metro Health District, which includes Gwinnett. As of Monday, there have been 31 confirmed cases in the county.

The seasonal flu season typically runs from October to March, but some seasons start or end earlier, said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"Flu is unpredictable, and each flu season is unique," Skinner said. "We have to expect for the worst - and prepare for it - but hope for the best."

Novel H1N1 is the predominant strain of flu circulating right now, but health officials are no longer testing every person who has flu-like symptoms, Skinner said. When the strain first appeared in April and May, it was important to test for it to get a good sense of what it was. Testing has continued so the strain can be monitored for changes, but it's no longer necessary to test each and every person.

Skinner said the CDC thinks the novel strain of H1N1 will continue to circulate this fall.

"We really can't tell what the potential impact on health might be," he said.

For the vast majority of people who get sick, the flu will make them miserable for three to four days, Skinner said.

"They may feel like a train hit them, but they're going to be OK," he said.

But for certain individuals, he said, the flu can be life threatening, and it's important to seek medical attention immediately.

In terms of prevention, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated, Skinner said.

Goins said all public health clinics are now giving seasonal flu shots on a walk-in basis.

"We've heard that H1N1 vaccine will be available in mid-October, but we encourage the public to get the seasonal flu shots early this fall and not wait until the H1N1 vaccine is available," he said. "Lines will be extremely long then."

Other preventive measures, such as observing cough and sneeze etiquette and frequent hand washing, are important, Goins said.

"If someone is sick, it's extremely important that they stay home from work or school," he said.

Schools are also trying to be proactive in fighting the spread of the flu. All schools and colleges are working with county and state health officials, and many institutions have posted information on their Web site.

Gwinnett County Public Schools has a close working relationship with the East Metro Health District, said Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for the school system.

"We have taken some proactive measures to educate our students, parents and staff about the flu, as well as steps to take to stay healthy during the cold and flu season," Roach said. "These include providing information on the district Web site, distributing flu fliers to all students and staff, sharing general information letters on the flu, and sending letters that alert parents to the possibility of flu cases in their school - all of these communication tools are aimed at giving parents information so that they can take steps to keep their children healthy."

In addition, schools are reminding students about the importance of proper hand washing and good respiratory etiquette and trying to stress to parents the importance of keeping ill children at home.

Wesleyan School has installed hand sanitizers throughout the campus, said Chad McDaniel, director of communications. Additionally, the school plans to administer flu vaccines to faculty and students, as it has done in the past. The Norcross school also has three nurses who will screen students and faculty members who develop flu-like symptoms.

Buford City Schools Superintendent Geye Hamby said the district is using the appropriate products to prevent the spread of germs. Each of the district's four schools also has a registered nurse who can monitor student illness.

"We've had no cases in our school system," he said. "We've been proactive, and we'll continue to be proactive."

Georgia Gwinnett College has focused on preventive education, said Merri Brantley, director of external affairs. Posters have been put up in restrooms to remind users to wash their hands for at least the length of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday." The college is encouraging students to get flu shots.

Gwinnett Technical College reviewed its existing pandemic crisis plan earlier this year, and the school has implemented a new emergency notification system for faculty, staff and students that will provide the ability for instantaneous emergency communications.

SideBar: At a glance

The CDC recommends the following to prevent the spread of the flu virus:

· Get vaccinated.

· Observe cough and sneeze etiquette.

· Wash your hands.

· Stay home from work or school when sick.