Panel Calls H1N1 'Serious Health Threat'

As many as 120 million Americans may show symptoms of the H1N1 swine flu as it continues to emerge in the United States this fall, and the illness could kill from 30,000 to 90,000 people, according to a government report released Monday.

In the report, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicted this fall's expected outbreak of the H1N1 flu would be a "serious health threat," infecting more people than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic but claiming fewer lives.

"Although initial concerns of an extremely high fatality rate have receded, the expected resurgence of 2009 H1N1 in the fall poses a serious health threat to the United States," the report said. The virus could kill from 30,000 to 90,000 people — many of them children and young adults. In a typical year, 30,000 to 40,000 people — mostly those who are over 65 — die from seasonal flu in the U.S.

With school campuses expected to be major transmission points for the spread of the flu, the president's panel called on the Department of Health and Human Services to accelerate the availability of some of the flu vaccine to mid-September.

In most of the country, school is in full swing by the beginning of September, and experts said peak infection may occur in mid-October.

With young people being at risk for illness, the White House panel recommended an intensive public education campaign aimed directly at them. The experts said the campaign should use the Internet to spread the word that people should stay home when sick and wash their hands frequently to help curb the spread of the virus.

Health officials are pushing to expand their use of the Internet to educate the public about a swine flu epidemic, using tweets, blogs and posts on Facebook and MySpace.

The CDC has stepped up its use of Twitter since the H1N1 outbreak began during the spring, increasing its followers on the online messaging service from 30,000 to more than 300,000. In addition, CDC scientists are hosting twice-monthly outreach activities that have involved updating 40,000 health professionals on issues related to H1N1.

The panel also recommended urging businesses to liberalize rules for absenteeism so workers don't feel they have to come to work sick. They also recommended that school districts work with sick students to meet their needs at home.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said schools are in the process of evaluating the materials they have to help students learn at home, including equipment to record classes and use take-home packets with up to 12 weeks of printed material.

"Schools, child care facilities and institutions of higher learning will not only play a key role in helping to mitigate the transmission of the flu this fall, but will also play a significant role in promoting critical public health information," he said.

After the emergence of swine flu in the spring prompted the closing of more than 700 schools, federal officials are advising administrators to close schools only as a last resort. They've also advised students and teachers that they can return to school or work 24 hours after their fever is gone, rather than a week.

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