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Student wants schools closed until flu vaccine is ready

Justin Kamen, 22, stands on the campus of

Justin Kamen, 22, stands on the campus of Columbia University. Photo Credit: Dave Sanders

Students usually have had no voice in policies governing school closures or vaccine distribution, but a student in Manhattan says he knows how to stop the swine flu pandemic in its tracks: Close all schools until a vaccine is ready in October.

The notion grew out of an undergraduate research project that has since blossomed into a Web site, a social-media campaign, and what at least one flu scientist is calling sound public health policy.

As founder of Students Prep America, Justin Kamen, 22, who graduated from Columbia University in May, is spreading the word about his organization via Twitter, Facebook and e-mail blasts. He says special precautions should be taken for young people because pandemic flu, unlike seasonal influenza - as scientists have confirmed - hits young people harder.

"We're talking about closing schools for just a few weeks," said Kamen, who is heading to law school in the fall. He posits that preventing the flu is more economical than treating it.

Epidemiologists have long known that school-age kids - and young adults - are among the biggest flu spreaders. Institutions from elementary schools to colleges are notorious influenza cauldrons.

School closures, considered so-called "non-pharmaceutical" interventions, were implemented throughout the killer 1918 flu pandemic as well as during the spring wave of H1N1. Last week, government officials in France announced the possibility of closing schools until a vaccine is ready.

But U.S. health officials two weeks ago updated guidelines and stressed the importance of keeping schools open.

Elizabeth Marino, superintendent of Deer Park Schools, a district in which six schools closed in the spring, said it isn't easy to shutter schools. "As an educator, that was probably one of the most difficult decisions I ever faced," Marino said, adding that her district, like others, is abiding by official guidelines.

But Kamen says even though federal health officials emphasize that H1N1 generally triggers only mild illness, they also note that it is having its biggest impact on 5- to 24-year-olds.

"It's a tragedy that [seasonal] flu kills so many people every year," Kamen said, referring to the deaths of elderly people. "But this flu is affecting 19-year-olds, which is a much different conversation."

Dr. Stephen Morse, founding director of Columbia's Center for Public Health Preparedness, calls Kamen's theory clever - a fresh approach. He neither coached nor taught Kamen but reviewed his theory.

Morse said the school closure issue boils down to two concerns, both having flummoxed flu scientists for years: When should a school close and for how long. "In theory, according to mathematical models, it would make sense to keep schools closed until a vaccine is ready," Morse said. Trouble is, he added, most communities choose to do so only after an infection is widespread.

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