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High Tech and Low Tech Approaches to Slowing Flu’s Spread

Washington, DC schools reopen this today, along with some Maryland districts, and officials and parents are preparing to keep influenza from returning to classrooms with students. The Washington Post reports that plans are underway for a large-scale immunization program, but there’s also a push to foster healthy habits that can stop the spread of the H1N1 virus, including hand washing. Current research on the strain indicates that young people are particularly vulnerable to the strain.

As well, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report today examining administration preparations for handling the expected resurgence of H1N1 as flu season approaches. They also point to hand washing in their bevy of recommendations for how small individual actions help curb outbreaks and preserve public health. A press release introducing the report underscored that the novel virus is not more deadly than seasonal strains, but it can move quickly through the population because few people are immune to it. This in turn could push medical providers beyond capacity.

One of the key recommendations of the report is that the Department of Homeland Security invest in public health surveillance systems (a suggestion CAP also made last year). In addition, PCAST recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to expand its new media outreach, noting that the CDCemergency Twitter account had 30,000 follows when the spring H1N1 outbreak began. This afternoon there are more than 762,000.

As Bryce Hall explained recently here at SP, CDC has worked with Google on other new media surveillance methods like search trend analysis. Search habits are very strongly correlated with viral outbreaks, and search data allow epidemiologists “to identify flu outbreaks two to six weeks faster than by using any other method,” he reported.

But it will take a mix of high- and low-tech innovation to slow the spread of flu as best we can. As Nelson Hernandez and David Brown report in the Post, DC officials recommend a simple timing device to make sure kids have spent long enough scrubbing their hands: “sing the Happy Birthday or Row, Row, Row Your Boat songs twice.

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