THE BLOG

Back to School: Keep Your Kids Safe From Germs

09/09/2013 12:37 EDT | Updated 11/09/2013 05:12 EST

According to some advertisements, back to school is the most wonderful time of the year. But for many parents, the dawn of the school year can also mark a much less joyous time, filled with sniffles, coughs, and diarrhea. Whether the location is an elementary or a high school, infections have been known to thrive and spread leading to misery and more importantly, absenteeism.

There has been little doubt that the classroom is a prime area for a number of infectious diseases, yet until the 2009 influenza pandemic, in which schools were actually closed, there had been little effort to stem the tide. Since then, public health community and a number of engaged citizens have worked together to find ways to prevent the spread of illness.

What has emerged over the last five years has been less a surprise than the confirmation as the best means to prevent illness in an educational setting, apart from closing schools, is ensuring the environment is as hygienic as possible. Yet while the answer may seem elementary, its application is far more complex and is being tackled in a number of different ways.

The most obvious means to prevent infection is to keep the environment as safe as possible. Back in 2008, a group led by researchers at Harvard Medical School published a paper showing how the simple addition of hand sanitizers and surface disinfectants was enough to reduce the level of gastrointestinal illness, such as the dreaded norovirus, in schools. However, the results were not as impressive for reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses, such as common colds and the flu. The reasons for this lack of change came down not to the inability of the products to kill, but rather the improper use of them by the students. Inasmuch as there was a means to prevent spread, it simply wasn't being used properly.

In 2012, the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago added credence to this explanation as researchers published an article revealing how hand hygiene education was key in reducing absenteeism due to illness. The researchers not only provided the most common form of instruction, posters, but also went into the schools and taught the students how to wash their hands properly and also how to use hand sanitizers.

As expected, there was an immediate reduction in the level of absenteeism but it didn't last. By the halfway point of the school year, the improvement had disappeared and by the end of the school year, those who had received the education were actually more absent than those who had not been enrolled in the program. While students tended to follow the program at the onset, over the course of the year, they either forgot or ignored the instructions.

The researchers suggested that hygiene education become a regular part of the school curriculum to ensure students are continually engaged. However, taking time to not only instruct but also monitor students would lead to an even greater work burden on teachers. In essence, either hygiene education had to become a part of the regular lesson program or students had to somehow be engaged outside of the classroom in order to maintain their knowledge and their actions.

In the last few years, that gap has been addressed by social media. The rise of the internet has led to the development of internet campaigns to help improve hygiene in children across the globe. The tactics have been similar, using videos and songs or gamification to keep the message of hygiene alive. The ease of an internet click and the potential for continued engagement over time and has led to relative success in these ventures. Yet the link back to education has not been a focus leaving the continued gap between actions in the home and those at school.

Last month, a new effort has been launched to help students become better aware of hygiene not only at home, but also in schools. Known as the Children's Global Hygiene Foundation, the Australian organization is taking a multi-pronged approach to improving hygiene in schools and keeping kids engaged in a worldwide community. The effort, known as Grimestoppers, will not only work to develop a global team of germ-fighting children, but also put pressure on governments worldwide to pass and enact hygiene education legislation in academic curricula. The group already has a celebrity spokesperson, Bindi Irwin, the daughter of the Crocodile Hunter, the late Steve Irwin, and even political support for the cause.

The program, which started last month, comprises a series of social media rich resources including videos from celebrities and participants, an online comic series, competitions for students to identify poor hygiene environments and the chance to 'Adopt a School' in a rural area. All these strategies are designed to ensure hygiene is seen by children as an important part of their lives. What makes this effort unique is the link between the goals of hygiene in the social media world with the efforts to control infections in the schools. If successful, this model could serve as a basis for more internationally-based campaigns to connect children worldwide through social media to improve health through communication and action.

The research and social efforts to control infections in the classroom have led to five useful tips, the 5Es, for parents. They are relatively easy to implement and follow and could very well help to keep kids healthy. Some require a little more action than others but the time spent may lead to a richer education experience and also fewer problems associated with absenteeism.

  1. Educate: Teach hand, cough and sneeze hygiene to kids and stress that they should also be used at school.
  2. Enrich: Make sure that when you perform hygiene, you share how and why with your little one(s).
  3. Ensure: Make sure sanitizing wipes or hand sanitizer are sent with the child to school and stress that they should be used to keep hands safe should washing with soap and water not be available.
  4. Engage: Talk with teachers to ensure that they are keeping an eye on the hygiene efforts of children including keeping school washrooms clean and stocked with toilet paper, soap and paper towels.
  5. Entertain: Search on social media for fun ways to help them learn about hygiene not only at home but also around the world.

While nothing can ever guarantee that illness won't strike at school, these tips should help to at least ensure that the chances of infection are minimized. More importantly, awareness of the need for hygiene and keeping health in mind will stick with them into adulthood. This in turn may possibly ensure an even safer and more hygienic world for the future and even less chances of illness for their children.