MOSS HILL—A high incidence of influenza like symptoms and fears about the recent global spread of the H1N1 flu strain, commonly referred to as swine flu, forced the temporary closure of the British School of Boston May 22.
According to a press release issued by the Boston Public Health Commission, 160 of 320 at the school, which serves students in nursery school through high school, were absent on May 21.
The British School operates out of space rented from Showa Boston, a satellite campus of the Showa Women’s institute in Tokyo, Japan. Showa administrators did not return Gazette calls for this story.
The closure was due to the absence rate and not to a high incidence of confirmed H1N1 cases, of which there are more than 400 in Massachusetts.
The commission is recommending extreme prudence for anyone displaying flu-like symptoms. “Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, or fatigue should refrain from public activities for seven days after the onset of illness or for 24 hours after symp-toms have resolved–whichever is longer,” the press release said.
The school will be allowed to reopen June 1.
At least seven other Boston schools have also been shut down for a week. Five of them—the Boston Latin School, the Umana Middle School Academy, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, and the Boston Latin School, and the private Winsor School—were scheduled to be reopened by today. Two more—the James Condon Ele-mentary School and the John D. O’Bryant School—closed May 26 and will reopen June 3.
“We are closely monitoring for attendance and reports of influenza like symptoms,” said BPHC spokesperson Ann Scales. “What you are seeing is in part due to people being more cognizant of flu-like symptoms.”
But H1N1 is “definitely in the community,” she said.
The first case of H1N1 was reported in Mexico on April 26 of this year. Since then it has spread around the globe at a rapid pace. As of May 22, 11,168 confirmed cases had been reported worldwide. There were 86 fatalities, 75 of them in Mexico and 9 in the US, but none in Massachusetts. As of May 27, there were 413 confirmed cases in Massachusetts and 19 hospitalizations.
The city’s school closures have so far been “measured and appropriate,” said Lenny Marcus, Co-Director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health and Kennedy School of Government.
According to its web site, the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative works “to prepare, teach and engage global, national, regional, and local leaders to cross geo-graphic and agency boundaries” to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.
“From the get-go, this virus has been a mystery and it continues to be a mystery,” Marcus said. “It’s not as deadly as [was initially] feared, and it is treatable, which is really different than what they thought at the beginning, but it is easily transmissible” and concerns remain that it may mutate as it reproduces itself and spreads.
State Department of Public Health (DPH) spokesperson Jennifer Manley told the Gazette that as of a week and a half ago, the DPH had instructed clinics across the state to scale back their testing for H1N1, and only screen people who were seriously ill. With the school closings though, that is pretty much out the win-dow.
“When schools start closing it becomes a serious concern for parents,” she said.
One unique aspect of the virus is that young, healthy people seem to be more susceptible to infection than older people, who are generally more susceptible to seasonal flu strains, Marcus said.
People under 50 seem to be more susceptible than people over 50. “It could well be that people born be-fore 1957 were exposed” to a similar virus, he said.
In a May 20 press briefing, Dr. Daniel Jernigan, deputy director of the influenza division at the na-tional Centers for Disease Control and prevention said H1N1 “appeared in 1918 and through circulation around the globe each season, has drifted away from the original virus that appeared and in 1957.” In that year, H1N1 was considered to have mutated enough to constitute a new virus, dubbed H2N2.
People between the ages of 19 and 49 account for the largest percentage of hospitalizations from the flu strain—37 percent, he said in the briefing. A transcript of the briefing is available on the CDC web site.
Globally, Marcus said, there is some concern about how H1N1 will spread as fall and winter—normal flu seasons—descend on the southern hemisphere. The new strain of H1N1 is the result of crosses between human, swine and bird viruses. In agrarian communities the virus’s ability to mutate may be accelerated by the op-portunity to easily jump back and forth between species, he said.
BPHC tips for avoiding contracting and spreading the illness include: Cover your mouth when you cough with your sleeve or a tissue; wash your hands with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze; avoid close contact with sick people. If you are sick with a fever and cough or sore throat, stay home for at least 24 hours after your symptoms are gone, or for seven days—whichever is longer. Stay away from clin-ics and hospitals unless you have severe symptoms, and notifying your doctor or the clinic before you ar-rive, so they can appropriately isolate you.
Updated version: A previous version of this article cited the 2009 death of 12-year-old Hunter Pope, who was originally believed to have died from complications of influenza after failing to receive a vaccine. However, it was later learned that Hunter Pope died of a heart condition caused by an unknown virus, and that while he tested positive for a strain of influenza, it was not a strain covered by the vaccine, according to his mother, Tess Pope.