With School Out, Swine Flu Fears Spread To Summer Camps

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There has always been a long list of instructions that parents must follow before sending a child to camp: Label everything, don’t forget bug spray and parents must make sure kids put on sunscreen everyday. Now many camp directors are adding the state’s recommendations to that list: Parents should tell their kids to wash their hands a lot, cough into their elbows and stay home if they have a fever.

"One thing that is a little bit different about this flu is that it's still happening," said Bette Bussel, executive director of the American Camp Association New England. "While it’s not really different than many of the other kind of flus, flu usually ends around now and it’s not this year. So it’s something that really none of us have seen."

What is also not clear is why Massachusetts and New England in general have more cases of swine flu than other regions around the country. And within New England, the commonwealth has the highest number of confirmed cases. That means camps need to remain vigilant, because the same kids who were in school are now going to summer programs.

At Ponkapoag Outdoor Center in the Blue Hills Reservation in Canton, kids play dodge ball under a canopy because it’s raining. Kathy Lazano, who oversees the day camp, is watching the game. She is a little concerned, but she is following the state’s recommendations.

Lazano said there is not much more she can do about it. "What are we going to do, put kids in bubble wrap? We can't," she said. "You know, take as many precautions as we can and, you know, make sure that kids are safe and hope for the best. That's all we can do."

The state Department of Public Health is asking camps, like schools, to make up their own minds about whether or when to shut down if there is an outbreak.

Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director for the state Department of Public Health, said surveillance efforts are voluntary. "There aren’t specific requirements to mandate that camps provide this information," she said. "However we are hoping that because of the significant community and parental interest in this illness, because of what we’ve seen in our current outbreak, that they will want to reach out to us."

If a camp shuts down, it is up its organizers whether or not to reimburse parents. Already, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has canceled all 33 of their sponsored summer camps around the country, because of 17 suspected flu cases and the fear that kids with compromised immune systems would be too vulnerable at camp.

Lauren Ferrari is angry about this. She usually sends her 17-year-old to a MDA-sponsored camp in Canton and is disappointed she was not given a choice. Her son has been in a public high school all year. "The risk of him contracting it at school was just as great as him going to camp," Ferrari said.

Massachusetts requires each camp have a health care supervisor who is over 18 and trained in first aid and CPR. At the Ponkapoag Center, that is Morgan Golden. He says he will contact state and local officials for guidance if kids show flu symptoms. And he points out that there are greater opportunities for infection at camp than at school. "It does run longer than the school day and also the kids are in a lot closer contact, doing sports and games all day as opposed to sitting at their desks," he said. "So there probably is a slightly higher risk here at camp."


So the challenge, say camp directors, is keeping the flu out to begin with, especially at sleep-away camps. State officials, including Dr. Smith, are hoping this influenza outbreak will wane over the summer. "The fact that the kids who were in school together, many of whom will now be in camp, we have to be alert for the possibility that it won’t wane because we’ll still have situations where our kids are in close contact with each other," Smith said.

But if swine flu emerges stronger and more widespread in the fall, state health officials said they are prepared with an adequate supply of the treatment Tamiflu.

This program aired on June 29, 2009.


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