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Short School Closures Won't Shut Down Flu

Two-week shutdowns won't work, simulations suggest

FRIDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Schools need to be closed for at least eight weeks during an influenza epidemic to significantly reduce infection rates, according to a new study.

Closing schools for less than two weeks, it found, has little effect.

The findings stem from a series of computer simulations of flu transmission in Allegheny County, Pa. -- the Pittsburgh area -- conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Health Department and RTI International.

During the current H1N1 swine flu pandemic, school closures have been used as a way to slow or halt the spread of the disease. Hundreds of schools across the United States were closed at different periods in 2009.

"Since children are more susceptible to most influenza strains than adults, closing schools seems an obvious strategy to slow the spread of flu," Philip C. Cooley, assistant director of bioinformatics at RTI and a co-author of the study, said in a news release from RTI, a research institute. "However, computer simulations indicate that such closures are ineffective unless they are sustained for at least eight weeks after implementation."

Short-duration school closures might actually increase the infection rate by having students return to school in the middle of an epidemic, when they're most vulnerable to infection, the researchers said.

Among their other findings:

  • Identifying individual sick students and keeping them from attending school has a minimal impact on infection rates during an influenza epidemic.
  • There are no significant differences between individual school closures and system-wide closures in controlling an epidemic.

The study was published online in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers advice for parents on protecting schoolchildren from the flu.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: RTI International, news release, Jan. 5, 2010

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