A third of all patients with flu symptoms at the Nelson Hospital emergency department have been under the age of 10. Photo: File.

Flu runs rampant through schools

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Flu season is hitting Nelson schools “hard and early” with one local principal saying it’s the worst he’s seen in his 12 years in charge.

Hampden Street School had 97 students away with flu symptoms on Tuesday, May 28 and have reported similar numbers throughout that same week.

“We had 80 students away on the Monday and 90 away on the Thursday as well, out of a roll of 472 children,” says principal Don McLean.

“We also had eight teachers sick, with one being hospitalised. It’s the hardest we’ve been hit in the 12 years I’ve been here. We’ve never had anything like it before.”

Nelson Central School principal Pip Wells has also reported a high number of absentees due to influenza as well as chickenpox.

“Last week we had about 40 students away each day,” she told Nelson Weekly.

Tahunanui School also recorded 41 students away on Monday and Birchwood School have had up to 40 students absent in one day with flu-like symptoms.

According to Nelson Hospital ED presentations and admissions for May, children were the most frequent for flu-like illnesses, with 31 per cent being aged 0-4 and six percent being 5-9-year olds.

“We are seeing large numbers of young people with flu-like illnesses, especially young children and infants,” says Dr Nick Baker, chief medical officer at Nelson Marlborough Health.

Over May, 162 people presented to Nelson Hospital’s ED with influenza-like illnesses, with 36 of those people being admitted to hospital – including pregnant women.

“This is a particularly heavy, and early start to the flu season. Given the national reporting and what we are seeing in our own community, we should all be preparing for a bad season,” says Nick.

He says the spike of cases in the region is putting pressure on the hospital.

“When people are admitted to hospital with suspected influenza they are put into ‘droplet isolation’ and we also put robust infection prevention protocols into place. This all puts pressure on bed use, ward organisation and staffing.”

Influenza vaccination levels have hit near record levels nationwide, with Pharmac reporting it has distributed over 1.26 million doses of the vaccine so far this winter.

This demand means that while many general practices, health providers and pharmacies have vaccines available, the national stockpile is now running low.

Nick says the current shortage does not affect those who are eligible for free flu immunisations, and they are urged to make an appointment at their GP, after-hours medical centres or selected pharmacy if they are not already immunised.

This includes pregnant women, those aged 65 and over, children up to the age of five who have had respiratory illnesses, people with severe asthma, heart disease, diabetes and other serious health conditions and children between 6 and 35 months.

For everyone else, Nick advises them to seek medical advice if they think they, or someone they care for, has the flu.

“Most people can care for themselves and others at home by following self-care advice and by asking Healthline nurses or the GP practice for further advice,” he says.

“It’s important to stay home from work or school and away from other people while you are unwell, and to frequently and thoroughly wash your hands as well as catch coughs and sneezes in a disposable tissue.”

Nelson GP spokesman Dr Graham Loveridge agrees that the flu season has hit early.

“In some of these school cases, it may not be the flu, but there is a nasty cold/virus going around. Some viruses will come into town that we don’t have much immunity to so a classroom makes the ideal environment for it to spread.”