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Washington County students participate in CDC-Pitt study of how flu spreads

This is a mote, a three-ounce electronic device about the size of a beeper, that students in some Canon-McMillan schools will be wearing Nov. 5 - Nov.7 to measure who they come in contact with as part of a CDC study on how influenza spreads. The device will be worn on lanyards around their necks

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About 450 Washington County students will help University of Pittsburgh researchers next week learn more about how flu spreads.

The students, who attend Borland Manor Elementary and North Strabane Intermediate schools in the Canon-McMillan School District, will come home on Monday wearing electronic proximity sensors. The devices, called motes, will record when the students come in contact with each other.

These “electronic tags,” which could collectively record as many as 1 million pieces of data in a typical day, will tell researchers how many times kids come together for conversations, sharing items or other activities, and how far apart they are, said Charles Vukotich Jr., senior project manager at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.

From that data, researchers will be able to better measure how influenza spreads in schools. If, that is, the kids hold up their end of the bargain and wear the 3-ounce devices all day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, when they'll be returned.

“The little kids kind of think they're cool,” said Shanta Zimmer, associate professor in Pitt's School of Medicine. “The older kids ... we can tell there's been some tampering.”

The motes send out a weak signal every 20 seconds to detect other motes and record when they detect one.

Students in Canon-McMillan schools participated in the study last year, but this will be the first time they will wear the motes on a scheduled day off from school. Preliminary data from last year's study, which also included Propel charter school students in Allegheny County, showed that each child interacted with an average of 109 other children during the school day.

One of the key questions the study hopes to answer is how effective closing schools might be in stopping the spread of flu, the researchers said.

“Last year there were significant numbers recorded overnight,” Vukotich said, providing some evidence that simply closing schools for a few days won't stop children from interacting with each other.

The two-year study, funded by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is also being conducted at Penn State and Utah.

Dubbed the “Social Mixing and Respiratory Transmission in Schools,” or SMART Schools study, it is part of a CDC effort to create a national policy on school response to flu and other pandemics.

“There was very little resistance to the project. It was only done with (parents') approval,” said Michael Daniels, Canon-McMillan superintendent. “We hope this study will mean fewer illnesses and fewer absences.”

Zimmer said researchers “know that children can drive influenza outbreaks, but we don't know how or why. Knowing their interaction and contact patterns will give us much-needed real-world data.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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