Swine flu fears prompt planning

As protection against the swine flu pandemic, children could soon be in line for the first mass inoculation at schools since the polio vaccinations of the 1950s, the state's superintendent of schools said Wednesday.

From his talks with state health officials, Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault said he understood the mass inoculation "would be pretty wide scale, free of charge and possibly implemented at each school." They also would be voluntary.

Rheault said plans are not yet finalized, "but it's the possibility, depending on the (case) numbers and what's happening across the country."

The vaccines against H1N1, or swine flu, are not expected to be available until this fall, most likely not in time for the Aug. 24 opening of Clark County's public schools.

Rheault said education and health officials worry that the virus could spread quickly when kids are back in school. "The fear is that (the virus) will mushroom and explode."

Health officials have stressed that a more virulent mutation of H1N1 has not developed. They have described H1N1 as no more deadly than the seasonal flu.

Terri Janison, president of the Clark County School Board, said board members would need to have "a big conversation" about vaccinations performed at school.

"There's a lot of questions that pop in my mind," said Janison, who wondered how a mass vaccination program would affect students' instruction time.

Rheault recalled that his own inoculation against polio was not a problem. As either a second- or third-grader in North Dakota in the 1960s, he simply swallowed a sugar cube spiked with the vaccine.

Phil Earl, a retired Nevada Historical Society historian, said there was a mass inoculation of state schoolchildren with the polio vaccine in the early 1950s.

"I was in high school at the time," said Earl, who grew up in Boulder City.

In 1954, about 1.8 million schoolchildren in 44 states were tested with the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh. Salk later announced the field trial was successful in combating polio, and the vaccine was licensed in 1955. Millions more children received the vaccine in mass inoculations in their schools. An oral polio vaccination was developed later.

In an indication of how seriously health and education officials are taking the possibility of an H1N1 outbreak this fall, Rheault said he met with the state's top doctor on Tuesday for the first time in his six years as the state's superintendent of schools.

Rheault said he also is arranging for Dr. Tracey Green, Nevada state health officer, to meet with school district superintendents in September.

Martha Framsted, a spokeswoman for the state's health division, said school closure guidelines from May remain in place. Rheault said health officials told him they may refine the guidelines.

The policy has been that school closures should be a "last resort" and to "keep the kids who were sick at home and isolated," Rheault said.

He expects school closures to remain a local decision, made on a case-by-case basis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that schools create "social distances," or keep students farther apart, to mitigate the spread of H1N1.

Rheault acknowledged that will be a challenge in Nevada because the state's budget crunch means class sizes will be larger this year. It's already common for schools to have as many 500 students in the cafeteria during lunch, he said.

The state superintendent said he is also developing a protocol to keep federal officials informed about school closures in Nevada.

Review-Journal reporter Richard Lake and Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this report. Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.