Gather a group of children together and you can bet that they will share more than toys. Each school year, children pass around billions of germs that cause colds, flus, and digestive problems. Fortunately, many infections are preventable. The editors of Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine asked clinical microbiologist Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D., author of The Secret Life of Germs, for advice on how to keep contact clean and children healthy. The secret? Keep washing!
P&C: How do children spread germs?
Dr. Tierno: Contact spread is responsible for 80% of all infectious disease. There are two main types of contact spread: Direct person-to-person contact (touching or kissing) and indirect contact (surfaces, toys, doorknobs). Because of the way children play, they are particularly vulnerable to these types of transmission.
P&C: What about the school environment?
Dr. Tierno: Surfaces are hot spots: Drinking fountains, toilets, faucets, toys, and play tables. During my visits to preschools, I have found these spots to carry a lot of germs, including Staphylococcus aureus [food poisoning], Streptococcus [strep throat], and Haemophilus influenza [meningitis]. Also, I don't see enough tissue boxes in schools. If a child uses a tissue, or even sneezes into the crook of his arm, the germs get tied up in the cloth. You can reduce the number of active germs on a surface by 80% to 90% just by capturing them with a tissue or cloth.
P&C: What can teachers do to cut down on surface germs?
Dr. Tierno: More frequent cleaning, such as wiping table surfaces down after a big classroom activity, prior to snack time, and at the end of the day.
P&C: We all teach our children to wash their hands. What should parents watch for to be sure their kids are getting it right?
Dr. Tierno: Most kids do the same thing as their parents: a cursory wash. They run their hands under the water and they are done. The proper way is to use hand soap, lather up, and make sure to get the soap under the fingernails, on their knuckles, and in between their fingers. Then rinse off. It takes only 15 seconds and it is something that will help them the rest of their lives. And whenever possible, they should use antibacterial soap and water.
P&C: Can plain soap and water work just as well as antibacterial soap?
Dr. Tierno: No. A recent classroom study has shown a 50% decline in respiratory illness, a 35% decrease in doctor's visits, and a 50% drop in absenteeism when antibacterial soaps were used and surfaces were routinely cleaned with disinfectants.
P&C: Could extensive use of antibacterial soap give rise to resistant germs?
Dr. Tierno: There has not been one single case of antibiotics resistance that has been related to germicide. The real reason for resistance is improper distribution of antibiotics. Of the 150 million prescriptions given each year, 90 million are for antibiotics. Of those 90 million, an estimated 50 million are inappropriate or improper. That is where the problem is.
P&C: What is the best advice you can give to parents?
Dr. Tierno: As my mother used to say, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Parents need to teach children simple hygiene procedures. Sneeze or cough into a tissue, then throw the tissue away, and wash your hands. By using antibacterial soaps and wiping down play surfaces regularly, you can spare children, and yourself, lots of unnecessary colds and flus.