Globe Editorial

Flu battle hits home

August 13, 2009

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THE FIGHT against swine flu is putting the public back in public health. And Massachusetts’s plan for the expected resurgence of the flu when schools reopen this fall will work only if parents, employers, and schools all do their part.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against the closings of schools that occurred in many areas last spring, but called for parents to keep sick children home until at least 24 hours after they no longer have signs of a fever. Boston health officials have been asking businesses to let employees take paid sick days so they can stay home with children. It is regrettable that Congress has yet to pass legislation requiring large employers to offer paid days off for workers who are sick or have to care for family members.

Without such legislation, a sense of shared commitment will have to suffice. Even small employers whose operations are severely strained by an absence should strive to accommodate parents of flu-stricken children. If parents fear the consequences of missing work, they’ll be more likely to ignore their children’s symptoms and end up having them infect entire classrooms.

The strains on the workplace would, of course, be only greater if the CDC were forced to recommend the more drastic move of closing schools altogether. Closings disrupt far more families than the virus alone does. And, without classes, many children congregate in malls anyway, increasing the chances for infection.

Health agencies are keeping an eye on other groups. While older adults have been largely spared the swine flu infection, officials are urging people over 50 to get their seasonal flu shots soon - to keep them out of hospitals and leave room in wards for swine flu victims. Also, healthcare workers should get both kinds of vaccines right away.

Children will have to wait longer for their swine-flu shots. Vaccinations will not be fully available until mid-October, and there will likely have to be two inoculations, three weeks apart. Full immunity will come weeks after that. Until then, the front line in fighting swine flu will be school nurses, family physicians, and parents.

Opponents of federal sick-leave legislation have long insisted that the government doesn’t have to step in for employers to do right by their workers. The expected rise in swine flu this fall will test that theory. All of Massachusetts is counting on employers to pass the test.

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