I honestly wondered when I would see the first report, the first Email, the first Tweet describing how a parent sent a perfectly healthy, rambunctious and excited youngster back to school on Monday only to see them knocked down, tired and cranky from an infection on Friday.

I didn’t have to wait long.

The illnesses started to pick up last week.  By Friday, there were more than a few Tweets trickling in on how the scourge of the schoolyard infection had afflicted their son or daughter.  Sure enough it will soon be “Curses!” to the Cold, “Dang it!” to the Diarrhea, “Egads!” to the Earaches and another alliterative interjection to the Flu.

The most surprising thing that I found, however, was that nobody seemed surprised at this.  I guess I wasn’t alone in the waiting game.

I have talked with many friends who are parents and they all agree that catching a cold or the flu from school is part of a child’s education.  They may learn from the books and teachers but they catch the colds and flu from their contemporaries.

While this may be a pain for parents, this cyclic activity of virus sharing I believe is mainly good for children in general.  With the exception of vaccine-preventable diseases (and there are quite a few of them…check out the Vaccination Schedule for Canada) the immune system must deal with potential threats in the same way that we must all be educated: through exposure and memory.

The only problem is that unlike mental learning, which usually is done without much incident (although getting children to do their homework might be a different story), the immune system is anything but placid as it learns how to fight disease.  Sniffles, coughs, fevers and tears all make the experience unhappy and at times painful.  Yet, as the immunity grows, so does the overall health of the child.

Recently, however, there’s been a problem.

While a normal child will experience anywhere between 3 and 8 colds per year (a graph from an article published in 2003 offers a lifelong look at colds), there seems to be an increase in the number of infections per child over the last few years.  Part of the increase is social in nature and unavoidable, such as increased classroom sizes and the increased time spent away from the home.  Another part is due to the lack of a true appreciation for the potential of germs and microbes to spread in the classroom.  While little can be done to change the social nature of education in today’s world, there are options to help reduce the spread of infections.

One such option is to go the Mary Poppins route.  Instead of a Spoonful of Sugar, though, this is all about a “Dash of Disinfectant” and a “Habit of Handwashing.”

There have been several school based studies outlining how the use of disinfection and hand hygiene contribute to reduced absenteeism in schools.  Yet, there appears to be one major caveat when it comes to these studies…they only work if there are enough people to keep it running smoothly.

As I mentioned earlier, classroom sizes are increasing and the time teachers can devote to the cleaning the environment continues to decrease. With the advent of H1N1, I can only imagine that this time would decrease even further, if not be eliminated completely.

A study by Dr. Kelly Bright and Dr. Chuck Gerba (Dr. Germ as he’s better known) from earlier this year suggests that parents might help teachers by getting involved in the cleaning of classrooms when they drop their kids off at work.  The results show that the additional help reduced absenteeism in the classroom and contributed to an overall sense of health.  The idea may very well have value at the elementary level but I can imagine this might not serve well for parents of older students.  However, if students become aware of germs and the effect of cleaning as they grow, they may be able to take over from their parents and keep their classrooms (and lockers?) clean and healthy.

Okay, I admit that’s extremely unlikely.  But the thought is there and I hope that some parents out there will take this idea into consideration and think about making sure their children know more about germs, how they spread and of course, how to prevent them from causing illness.

I also admit that I’ve only given one option.  I’d very much enjoy hearing from any parent who has fought a higher number of infections in their child’s school and how they went about trying to reduce the numbers.  Even if the battle was lost, I’m sure people would want to hear your stories and share their own as well.

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