DENVER — Summer camps are contending with more than bug bites and poison ivy this year: They're on the lookout for swine flu.
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While regular flu all but disappears in the summer, swine flu is spreading, and more than 50 summer camps in 20 states have sent kids home early or canceled sessions after suspected outbreaks.
Most cases have been mild, but they have deprived campers and parents of a cherished summertime tradition.
"I'm just laying around, reading some," said a bored Alexandra Ward, 13, who is home this week instead of at an arts camp at the University of Northern Colorado. The two-week camp sent kids home a week early after some came down with flu-like symptoms. Ward and two younger siblings did not get sick.
"It was really disappointing," said Ward, who is missing out on classes in animation and Broadway musicals. "I really love camp."
Lack of immunity
The swine flu outbreaks are not limited to summer camps. Cases have been reported at office buildings, jails and on church choir trips. Schools have been hit, too, including the Air Force Academy, where at least 68 students have confirmed cases of swine flu, the H1N1 virus.
Scientists do not know for sure why seasonal flu is most common in the winter and why the swine flu took hold in the late spring and early summer. Swine flu is a new virus, and the lack of immunity in young people may have something to do with it, according to Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a flu expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At camps, medical staffs are more accustomed to treating minor summertime injuries.
"It was a really tough decision," says Bob Mackle, a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which decided last month to shutter 47 camps in 35 states after swine flu was reported at three of them.
"The kids are disappointed, obviously. This is the biggest thing for them all year," Mackle said.
The American Lung Association followed suit, advising about 50 affiliated camps to close. The decision came after four campers were hospitalized in June when they became sick with swine flu at its affiliated SCAMP Camp in Julian, Calif., about 60 miles northeast of San Diego.
Officials at the CDC say at least 50 camps have closed sessions or sent campers home early this summer.
But the actual count is likely to be much higher because there's no requirement that camp closures be reported. The state of Maine alone confirmed swine flu cases at 33 summer camps, where some even converted arts-and-crafts cabins to makeshift infirmaries.
Swine flu was first identified in April, and since then there have been 37,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 211 deaths.
The Maine Emergency Management Agency and county EMA offices shipped cots to more than a half-dozen camps that needed extra beds to isolate sick campers.
Prepping for fall
Even camps without any flu cases changed how they do business. At a camp for kids with asthma in Angelus Oaks, Calif., about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, the 130 campers who arrive each week have medical screenings before they are allowed inside. Parents have to review a form listing flu symptoms, such as runny noses or sore throats.
"I said, 'Don't even send your kids to the bus if you check one of these boxes,'" said Rosemarie Yu, director of Nomowheezin' Camp, run by the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America. As a final precaution, Nomowheezin' campers have their temperatures taken before heading to camp.
The Indianapolis-based American Camp Association says parents have been generally understanding when camps close early or cancel sessions. The group represents about 2,600 camps, most of which are using the swine flu scare to emphasize hygiene and cleanliness.
CEO Peg Smith said the flu cases at camp may help encourage good health habits.
"All those kids are going to walk into school this fall, and you bet they'll be prepared," Smith said.
But they might have a lousy time describing what they did on summer vacation.
Tyler O'Hare of rural New Raymer, Colo., was another camper sent home from the University of Northern Colorado. The 15-year-old was looking forward to sports and catching up with camp friends. Instead, he's stuck doing such chores on the family ranch as branding calves and repairing fences.
"Pretty much I'm just hanging around now," O'Hare said. "It's kind of good they closed, because I don't want to get the flu, but I would've loved to have stayed at camp."
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