U.S. health officials are warning about a possible resurgence of the Swine Flu virus in North America as the cold weather approaches, and schools prepare to reopen. Health experts say the illness poses a special risk to schools, which are set to re-open at the start of the flu season.
For many young students, the start of a new school year often means a trip to the doctor for a physical and a new round of vaccinations. Schools require almost all students be up to date with their shots, such as for polio, diphtheria, and measles, before they can return to class.
To help defray the costs, the Florida city of Hialeah offered free vaccines at a health clinic this week, which drew more than a dozen families early one morning.
Six-year-old Vashti Ragin was getting shots for the first time in Miami, after her family moved to the area from Georgia. Her mother, Darlene, said Vashti was worried about the needle pricks, but it was needed to keep her healthy.
"After talking to her pediatrician when we decided to move here, she highly recommended she get at least three or four shots: the MMR [mumps, measles, rubella], polio, DPT [diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus], and I think they do hepatitis here," she said.
One shot that is not available yet is the vaccine for the newly discovered H1N1 Swine Flu virus. Medical teams are working to produce a supply and hope to begin offering the vaccine by October.
Still, Darlene Ragin says she will not get flu shots for her family, even though her daughter may be exposed to it at school. "If she is sick definitely I won't send her to school. Some parents unfortunately they send their kids to school because they can't afford to let them stay home or they can't miss work," she said.
Nearby, Ivete Lopez also was waiting for free vaccines for her son, Camilo, who is entering the seventh grade. She said she does not know anyone who contracted swine flu, but she says getting a vaccine is a good safeguard.
Lopez said of course her family is concerned about swine flu and that hopefully when the vaccine is released, her son will have a chance to be inoculated.
The World Health Organization says nearly 180,000 cases of swine flu have been reported this year, and it has killed more than 1,400 people - most of them in the Americas.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control say H1N1 could come back strong this year and trigger a severe flu season. It is recommending vaccines for several groups of people, including school children, and asking schools to take added precautions.
At Miami-Dade public schools, health director Wilma Steiner says the focus is on urging students to keep their hands clean and helping officials to quickly identify students who are sick. "What the CDC is asking us to do is to make sure that anybody that is ill is isolated, they are sent home and asked to stay home for 24 hours after whatever fever they have is gone," she said.
After the discovery of H1N1 earlier this year, school officials shut down several schools for days after students or teachers were found with the illness. Steiner says now that will happen only in rare cases, since health experts have a broader understanding of the flu and how to stop it.
While officials worry that public attention to swine flu is waning in the United States now, the fear is real in South America, which is in the middle of flu season during its winter months. Argentina, Chile and Brazil have been hit hardest, resulting in a total of more than 500 deaths.
The spread of the virus in South America resonates in Miami, which is considered a gateway to Latin America and is home to many immigrants. Health experts say Miami residents who took summer trips back home, where the virus is more active, may now be in a position to bring it back to their communities in the United States.
Jarbas Barbosa is manager of health surveillance for the Pan-American Health Organization, which has been tracking H1N1 in Latin America.
He says the United States played a key role in exporting the illness earlier this year, and it is ironic that the virus may come back to the country now.
Barbosa says the lessons of proper hand washing and covering a cough should be applied in the United States as much as they are in Latin America.