The US administration is worried that tens of thousands of people could fall ill with swine flu before a new vaccine is available later this fall. The government is urging Americans to adopt a series of preventive measures to stop the spread of the illness.
The emphasis on measures such as washing hands often and staying home when sick comes as schools across the country report a surge in flu-like symptoms.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius demonstrates the proper way to cough at the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
More than 2,500 students at Washington State University have reported becoming ill since the semester began two weeks ago, in one of the largest school outbreaks yet. Emory University in Atlanta, which has had more than 220 ill students, set aside an empty dormitory to house several in isolation.
About 25,000 students were dismissed from 24 secondary schools Friday due to the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Wall Street Journal reports.
In the meantime, the University of Maryland, College Park is dealing with 172 flu cases, an unusual late-summer outbreak that is probably the H1N1 virus, campus officials say.
Though the campus health center is not testing for the virus, the number of students showing flu symptoms is radically higher than usual for the beginning of the fall semester.
"Oh yes, we usually don't see cases of students showing flu symptoms until December and February," Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs, said Tuesday afternoon. "We're not testing, but we're just assuming that any student who shows up with symptoms is suspicious for H1N1."
Symptoms continue to be mild, no worse than the seasonal flu, and most students seem to feel better after three days, Clement said.
Campuses around the country are reporting unusual outbreaks of flu. According to a survey released by the American College Health Association, about 54 percent of 189 colleges polled reported flu cases for the week of Aug. 22-28, the Baltimore Sun reports.
Specifically, authorities said, practitioners shouldn't wait for lab tests to confirm the presence of the novel strain of the H1N1 virus before starting antivirals in high-risk patients who show symptoms of flu. The drugs work best when started within 48 hours of illness.
The Washington Post quoted Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying "We think that [time] window is very important,"
She added, however, that "the majority of adolescents and adults and most children won't need antiviral treatment and can be cared for with Mom's chicken soup at home."
About 70 percent of people hospitalized with the new flu strain have had conditions such as pregnancy, diabetes or emphysema that put them at risk for serious complications. For such people, treatment with an antiviral drug if they show signs of flu is "generally recommended," Schuchat said during a telephone news conference.
Doctors should also consider giving preventive treatment to high-risk patients who have been exposed to someone with the flu. However, in a change from the guidance this spring, the CDC now says it is also acceptable for practitioners to watch such patients carefully and prescribe an antiviral only if a fever develops, the Washington Post reports.