In for Flu Season

According to health officials, flu season is going to be unusually long and unpredictable this year, with current outbreaks of swine flu in schools potentially followed months from now by waves of seasonal flu among the elderly.

Officials are also keeping a close eye on some nasty seasonal strains. One is widely resistant to oseltamivir, the popular antiviral drug marketed as tamiflu. And an emerging variant of another virus known for hitting the elderly hard isn't fully covered by this year's seasonal flu vaccine.

"This season is going to be crazier than ever," said William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

Government officials, hoping to avoid overloaded clinics and confusion over two different flu vaccines, are urging people to get seasonal flu shots now. The swine flu shot won't be available at least until mid-October, following clinical trials. The government said Wednesday it plans to launch tests of the swine-flu vaccine in pregnant women this week.

A Los Angeles pharmacy offers flu shots Tuesday to customers. U.S. officials are urging people to get seasonal vaccine, which is now widely available.

Health officials at the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe the new H1N1 swine-flu virus could outmuscle at least some of the seasonal viruses in the northern hemisphere this winter. The new H1N1 flu currently accounts for 76% of influenza viruses circulating globally, according to the WHO, The Wall Street Journal reports.

In the meantime, almost three-quarters (73%) of American colleges and universities are reporting cases of influenza-like illnesses among students, with the highest rates in the Southeast and Midwest, the American College Health Association says.

There were 4,045 new flu-like illness cases between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4 among 204 schools taking part in voluntary reporting, the new data show.

Most schools are not testing to confirm the virus is H1N1, or swine flu. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly all the flu virus now circulating is H1N1.

So far there has been only one flu-related college death. Troy University freshman Andrew Salter, 18, of Valley, Ala., died on Sept. 4 after fighting first H1N1 and then pneumonia, says university official Herbert Reeves, the USA Today reports.

It was also reported, in an effort to contain swine flu, the French Health Ministry this week called for citizens to avoid "all direct contacts between people and particularly with sick people," which means no kissing or shaking hands. Quelle horreur, one might think, but the French seem ready to banish their tradition, called la bise, of bestowing pecks multiple times on both cheeks. Some businesses are instituting bise bans, and schools are instructing students to greet one another by raising a hand, like American Indians. Here in the United States, our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a guidance for college students last month instructing them to partake in "self -isolation" if they're suspected of being infected with the H1N1 virus that causes swine flu. The agency goes on to say:

If close contact with others cannot be avoided, the ill student should be asked to wear a surgical mask during the period of contact. Examples of close contact include kissing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, or having any other contact between persons likely to result in exposure to respiratory droplets, U.S. News & World Report reports.

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