Washington County students carry devices to help Pitt monitor spread of flu

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With the help of children who'll be off of school for Tuesday's election, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh hope to find out if school closings can slow the spread of flu and other disease.

Today researchers will distribute remote sensors called motes to about 450 students at Borland Manor Elementary and North Strabane Intermediate schools in the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County. Students will wear the motes, the size of a beeper and weighing 3 ounces, on lanyards around their necks today, Tuesday and during the school day Wednesday. Researchers will collect the motes before school is dismissed.

Powered by batteries, motes send out a signal that will detect another mote when they get close to each other, and the encounter is electronically recorded. Data collected from motes should give researchers a comprehensive picture of how often children interact.

"This is the first time this is being done anywhere, ever," said Charles Vukotich Jr., senior project manager at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.

The Social Mixing And Respiratory Transmission in Schools, or SMART, study is funded by a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The idea for the study was prompted by the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which infected more than a million Americans and led to the death of more than 18,000 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Seasonal flu typically affects older people. But H1N1 was first detected in a 10-year-old in California, then next in an 8-year-old.

The data from the motes will help Pitt researchers identify nonpharmaceutical means of containing flu and other epidemics among schoolchildren, Mr. Vukotich said. This is vitally important, he said, because "in the early part of a pandemic, there won't be a vaccine."

This was certainly true of H1N1, which, the CDC said, was "a unique combination of influenza virus genes never previously identified in either animals or people."

The purpose of the SMART study is to find answers to several questions about transmission during a flu outbreak: What are the most effective means of keeping it from spreading? During the school day, should movement among classes be restricted? Would more vaccinations help? Should children who show signs of the flu be sent home? Be kept in a separate room? Should sick leave policies for teachers and administrators be changed?

Pitt researchers will use the data to construct models of how schoolchildren interact so they can develop the most effective preventive measures.

This is the second year for the SMART study. Last year elementary, middle and high school students in eight schools in the Canon-McMillan School District and Propel Charter Schools in Allegheny County wore the motes during a school day.

Last year's study showed that the typical student interacts with 109 children during the school day. High school students have more interactions than do younger students. Most interactions occur at lunchtime.

The expanded study this year will give Pitt researchers information about how often children interact outside of school.

region - health - neigh_washington - science

Jack Kelly: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.


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