Background: Control of pandemic influenza by social-distancing measures, such as school closures, is a controversial aspect of pandemic planning. However, investigations of the extent to which these measures actually affect the progression of a pandemic have been limited.
Objective: To examine correlations between the incidence of pandemic H1N1 (pH1N1) influenza in Alberta, Canada, in 2009 and school closures or weather changes, and to estimate the effects of school closures and weather changes on pH1N1 transmission.
Design: Mathematical transmission models were fit to data that compared the pattern of confirmed pH1N1 cases with the school calendar and weather patterns.
Setting: Alberta, Canada, from 19 April 2009 to 2 January 2010.
Data sources: 2009 virologic test results, 2006 census data, 2009 daily temperature and humidity data, and 2009 school calendars.
Measurements: Age-specific daily counts of positive results for pH1N1 from the complete database of 35 510 specimens submitted to the Alberta Provincial Laboratory for Public Health for virologic testing from 19 April 2009 to 2 January 2010.
Results: The ending and restarting of school terms had a major effect in attenuating the first wave and starting the second wave of pandemic influenza cases. Mathematical models suggested that school closure reduced transmission among school-age children by more than 50% and that this was a key factor in interrupting transmission. The models also indicated that seasonal changes in weather had a significant effect on the temporal pattern of the epidemic.
Limitations: Data probably represent a small sample of all viral infections. The mathematical models make simplifying assumptions in order to make simulations and analysis feasible.
Conclusion: Analysis of data from unrestricted virologic testing during an influenza pandemic provides compelling evidence that closing schools can have dramatic effects on transmission of pandemic influenza. School closure seems to be an effective strategy for slowing the spread of pandemic influenza in countries with social contact networks similar to those in Canada.
Primary funding source: Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Public Health Agency of Canada.