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Several schools in the Boston area have been closed for at least a week because of concerns over the H1N1 swine flu and because of what officials are calling clusters of "influenza-like" illness.
For more on the closures, we turned to Dr. Anita Barry, who is director of the Infectious Disease Bureau of the Boston Public Health Commission.
Dr. Barry, very few of these students and staff have been diagnosed with the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, but the city has made a significant decision to close the two schools in Boston. How and why?
DR. ANITA BARRY: Well, it wasn't the individual laboratory diagnosis that really drove the decision. It was the number of students who were ill with influenza-like illness. When you have a large number of people ill, you really don't need to have a lab confirmation in every one of them to know what's going on.
How many students and faculty in these schools are ill as far as we know?
DR. BARRY: Well at Boston Latin, for example, there are about 2,400 students. And 260 students were ill yesterday [Tuesday]. We had done a survey, and about three-quarters of those we surveyed had influenza-like illness. The illness has primarily affected students, rather than faculty. And that really mimics the pattern that we're seeing nationwide with this particular illness.
Are any of them seriously ill enough to be hospitalized?
DR. BARRY: No, we're not aware of anyone who's had to be hospitalized who's a student or faculty member at the Boston Latin School.
And are any of those cases confirmed swine flu?
DR. BARRY: Yes. We have a case that has been confirmed as the novel H1N1 influenza virus...
At Boston Latin?
DR. BARRY: Yes. At both, actually... that people were calling swine flu, yes. But you don't have to have the lab confirmation, again, in everyone to know what's going on.
Just so I'm clear on that: It's one case in both the schools in Boston?
DR. BARRY: Yes, that's correct. In each school we have one individual who has been confirmed.
Both Boston Latin and the Winsor School are in the Longwood Medical Area, where many of Boston's hospitals are also located. Was that a concern, a consideration, in this closure decision?
DR. BARRY: No, it was not. Because this virus is transmitted through very close contact — through the air if you're within three to six feet of someone who has it — we really weren't worried about the medical institutions in the area.
When a school is closed for these reasons, what happens? Is the city going to send in a large cleaning crew to sterilize it?
DR. BARRY: There's no need to sterilize the environment. Ordinary washing, ordinary cleaning with a disinfectant will do. And really it's the routine cleaning that would take care of the problem. Again, the transmission with influenza is primarily through respiratory droplets that come out when someone coughs or sneezes. It's not primarily through contact with objects.
What about that? Do you fear that they're going to be less likely, if they're off schools grounds, to heed the advice about handwashing and such to reduce their risk of illness?
DR. BARRY: Well, we're asking for cooperation from the students and their families to minimize public activities and any type of activities where people would congregate. The goal is to have people away from others so that any transmission would be stopped. And we're asking for cooperation in doing that.
This program aired on May 20, 2009.
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