Monday, May 11, 2009

Kids aren't grimy, their schools are

It seems like the swine flu (A.K.A. H1N1, aporkalypse, snoutbreak and hamdemic) has lost the collective interest of the media - or perhaps I've just stopped listening because there was nothing interesting being printed about it anymore. Like most big crises, the first wave of hysteria passed quickly and time will tell whether it was warranted or not.
In the lull, it does end up that something very interesting has come to light that matters whether the swine flu is the next 1918 virus or not. Since SARS, we've done a fairly good job of impressing the importance of handwashing - which controls the spread not only of potentially serious illnesses like influenza (of all kinds), but also common colds, stomach bugs and all manner of annoying and time-consuming illnesses. I'm consistently disappointed to see the flu vaccine touted as the primary step in public health campaigns, but simple public hygiene has made inroads. The fact that there's currently no vaccine for the swine flu leaves only hygiene to prevent the spread and I think that's a good thing no matter what - it doesn't matter whether you have a vaccine that works if you prevent the spread to begin with, after all.
I worked in a large office building in Toronto during the SARS outbreak - it was an eye opener for many workers to realize how much simple hygiene could be improved. Suddenly, cleaners wiped down door handles and bathrooms several times a day - and it made you think about why that wasn't done before. Standards rose and stayed that way (at least in our building) because businesses and the workers they employed realized how simple steps could help contain all kinds of grossness.
This time around I work out of my safe little home cocoon, so I'm not worried about grimy elevator buttons. However, Isabelle is in junior kindergarten (society's largest Petri dish) and the outbreak has brought to light serious deficiencies in hygiene within the school. In an informal poll of my mommy circle, it appears that few of us know how often schools are thoroughly cleaned or bathrooms disinfected. While handwashing is a key, in many schools, bathrooms are poorly stocked or kept in a state of disrepair. Children may avoid using them entirely, meaning that they go an entire day without rinsing the building eco-system of germs off their hands. A good discussion of this was on the section of the Toronto Star today:
In other cases, teachers and students end up relying primarily on hand sanitizer because of a lack of facilities - alcohol based hand sanitizers are not the same as hand washing and while they may be safe for an occasional use, try licking your hand after using some and see if that's what you'd want on your preschooler 6 times a day.
Parents of children in their first years of school have learned to expect a year or two of next constant illness running through their house - because, we assume, kids have bad hygiene habits and there's no way around it. Well, having seen enough snotty, drippy noses on the playground and sneezes into the communal cookie plate, I can concede that kids are definitely at a disadvantage over office workers. So, why then, do we freak out about elevator buttons and copy machines, but few of us know how often the counters in the boys' room get disinfected or the tissues are replaced? The very few who have any idea wouldn't be too happy with the answer.


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