Public health and school officials in the Washington area are reporting a surge in the number of influenza B cases and people with flu-like symptoms, a seasonal outbreak that appears to have hit some communities in Maryland harder than the District or Virginia.
Epidemiologists said they do not believe the region's flu outbreak this season is any worse than a typical winter, but some schools in Maryland have reported absentee rates of up to 25 percent.
St. Peter's, a private school in the Charles County town of Waldorf, was closed yesterday and today after more than 100 of its 447 students and a third of the staff called in sick. The number of ill students swelled from 70 last Friday to 102 Monday and 125 Wednesday. Six of the school's 18 staff members also were sick.
Marcia Oglesbay, a third-grade teacher at St. Peter's, struggled into work last Friday after battling a fever the night before, and found that only 14 of her 24 students were able to get to school. Oglesbay said she went home early while other teachers tended to her students; Oglesbay's 7-year-old son also has the flu.
"The kids, sometimes in class they say 'I've got a headache' or something is wrong -- this time you really believed them," Oglesbay in an interview from home.
St. Peter's Principal Jude DeLucco said she and other officials agonized over their decision to close the school. "We understand that day care is a problem . . . but for their own health we needed to do something and get the incubation period over with," DeLucco said.
A spokeswoman for the Charles County health department said five or six public schools also reported absentee rates of 10 to 25 percent.
In Prince George's County, officials said several schools were reporting unusually high absentee rates because of flu-like symptoms. One elementary school with 385 students that normally reports an average 12 absences had 66 children out sick, officials said.
Meanwhile, Montgomery County school and health officials said they have noticed no problems associated with the flu.
In the District, Martin Levy, the administrator for preventive health services, said a sampling of public and private schools, one college and several large employers indicates a recent slight increase in flu cases.
Northern Virginia health and school officials said there had not been large numbers of students or workers out because of the illness.
In Maryland, state officials confirmed nine cases of the type B influenza, but Maryland health department epidemiologist Timothy R. Cote said many more cases were likely to go unreported.
"The flu comes every year," Cote said. "It was here last year and it will be here next year."
Cote said that while most flu sufferers will get by with a little rest, plenty of fluids, cough syrup or non-aspirin pain killer, people over 65 or those with chronic illnesses should not treat the flu lightly. Symptoms commonly include aches, coughs, congestion and fever.
Many health experts recommend that people in those two groups, along with health care providers, get an annual flu shot or consider a pneumococcal vaccine to guard against a combination of flu and pneumonia, which kills between 10,000 and 40,000 elderly people a year in the United States.
Cote also said parents should not give any aspirin to children who have the flu because doing so could cause the dangerous illness Reye's syndrome. Instead, parents should substitute an acetaminophen such as Tylenol, Cote said.
Seven-year-old Kelly Quest, a student at St. Peter's School in upper Montgomery County, said she clearly remembers when she succumbed to the flu bug. Kelly said she touched a sick friend a couple of days ago and promptly came down with headaches, a stuffy nose and fever that rose and fell for a day before finally settling at 101 degrees yesterday morning.
That's when Kelly's teachers called her father, John. "I feel a little okay," she said yesterday while waiting to be examined in the Rockville office of physician Carol W. Garvey.