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Flu Epidemic Putting Sports Event Planners on Notice

24 Jan, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Chicken pox. Measles. Mumps. Zika. Legionnaires Disease. Even plague. They’ve all threatened sports events over the past five or so years. Now, it’s something much more commonplace, but no less threatening: the flu. And it’s hitting schools – and youth sports events – with a serious punch.

According to CNN, influenza activity is widespread in all states except Hawaii (and the District of Columbia), according to the weekly flu report released two weeks ago by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said, in an update posted recently, that 13 children nationwide had died of flu so far this season. About 100 children have died in each of the past several flu seasons. Data from recent years has shown that among pediatric flu deaths, most victims had not received a flu shot.

The flu shot is always going to be a sore point (sorry) in youth sports circles. But with indoor sports going strong, the likelihood of the flu being passed around teams (as well as families) is high. Unfortunately, while many states require vaccinations for school, flu isn’t generally one of them. (This chart from 2016 shows Connecticut as the lone state that does.) In addition, the CDC notes, many states have exemption policies for parents who say they have a religious preference against having children vaccinated, although in some cases, an outbreak of a given disease can allow states to override that. The CDC recommends children receive a flu shot but again, it’s not required.

While there doesn’t seem to be any specific requirement that children need to receive a flu shot in order to play sports, some governing bodies have stepped up to encourage parents to have children vaccinated. U.S. Youth Soccer has long been one of these, and a statement on its website from 2011 notes, “even healthy, active children can get very sick from the flu and spread it to friends, loved ones and teammates, especially when a team travels together.”

Sports events that skew toward older teen and adult participants also recommend getting a flu shot. The IRONMAN Triathlon website includes this page. The Athlinks health blog terms athletes a “high-risk” group for the flu, because of factors such as more frequent air travel than non-athletes, increased close contact with others through sport and a greater likelihood of sharing equipment – which can lead to a case of the flu at an inopportune time, such as during training for a marquee event including the Boston Marathon. Even figure skater Caryn Kadavy famously had to withdraw after her short program in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary because of the flu.

Some sports venues create flu shot promotions. In November, the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Pennsylvania offered a flu shot clinic and free ice skating session. Pediatricians say the current rate of vaccination – about 50 percent – is unacceptable and that coaches can be more effective in encouraging parents to have their children vaccinated.

Schools are reporting a devastating impact; in fact, the Boonville School District in Missouri threw in the towel, cancelling classes and events. Custodial staff members went classroom to classroom, wiping down desks, doorknobs, water fountains and other fixtures students would come into contact with. The Kellogg (Idaho) School District also shut down schools in response, as did some districts in Oklahoma and a multitude of others, both public and private.

Across the nation, California has been particularly hard hit, with at least 27 deaths of people under 65 attributed to the flu, the Associated Press reports, and emergency rooms being overrun with patients with flu symptoms. As the number of cases continues to climb in hard-hit areas, hospitals are beginning to run out of Tamiflu, the anti-viral medication used to treat the illness. 

The bad news: we haven’t hit the worst of it yet.

Fortune Magazine noted, “The peak of the flu season typically comes in February. The disease is getting an early start this year thanks to cold weather that’s present across much of the United States. Making things worse is that this year’s flu vaccine is thought to only be 10-33% effective against this particular strain, USA Today reports. That means even people who received the vaccine could wind up catching the flu. For some perspective, the vaccine is traditionally 40-55% effective.”

The fact that it can take two weeks for a flu shot to fully build an immunity to the disease means that sports event directors who might decide to require it should be prepared for the fact that it isn’t an instant fix.

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