MADISON- Flu activity in K-12 schools is a good warning system for influenza activity in the community, according to first-year data in a UW School of Medicine and Public Health study.
“We found that widespread flu activity in the community happens one to two weeks after the flu appears in school children,” said Dr. Jon Temte, professor of family medicine. “The engine for influenza is in the school population. The children then take it home to their moms and dads, younger siblings and grandparents.”
Temte and his team of researchers tracked influenza-like illness and absences in the Oregon School District during the last flu season that ended in spring. The flu activity in schools was then compared to the activity seen in UW Health clinics visited by Oregon residents. The researchers found a high correlation between school absences for influenza-like illness and positive flu cases reported by the clinics.
In the Oregon Child Absenteeism Due to Respiratory Disease Study (ORCHARDS), parents who call the Oregon School District’s absentee phone line get an automated message about the study. The message directs those interested in participating in the study to call the study phone number for a brief phone interview. If the child is eligible, a research team member makes a home visit to collect information on symptoms and to collect nose and throat specimens. One is used for a rapid flu test that allows the researchers to provide results within 45 minutes to two hours. Another specimen is sent to the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene for molecular testing that can identify 17 respiratory viruses. During the first year of the three-year study, researchers conducted 129 home visits.
“We were thrilled with the response from the Oregon community,” said Temte.
“Our staff was welcomed into their homes and parents said they were grateful for the rapid flu test results.”
During the entire school year, the research team receives daily reports from the Oregon School District’s electronic records system. The reports gives daily data on the number of school absences, how many students were absent with illness and how many were absent with influenza-like illnesses.
“Our hope is to have an early warning system that accurately tells us when influenza is hitting a community and to be able to generalize the system to any school district that has electronic records,” said Temte.
Temte received $1.5 million over three years for the study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As part of the partnership with the Oregon School District, each school receives $4000 per year in discretionary money from the grant. In addition, each participating child receives a $20 gift card and a lot of information on influenza.