As parents send young children back to school and pack their older ones off to college, the government’s warning of up to 90 thousand U.S. deaths this season from H1N1 flu has given many of us pause. Germs and people go together; turning classrooms, dorm rooms, and cafeterias into giant-sized Petri dishes for the virus’s spread. H1N1 flu viruses– like noroviruses which cause vomiting and diarrhea – are able to maintain the infection cycle by spreading through the interaction of people who cough and sneeze, transmitting the virus by droplets in the air or their contaminated hands.
Parents are justified in their concerns. Numerous suspected cases of H1N1 have been reported at schools and as of mid-August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reported 8,843 hospitalizations and 556 deaths in the U.S. Children and young adults are getting sick from H1N1 flu more than older people. In fact, a look at the spread of Norovirus in 2005 provides further evidence of schools as ground zero for contamination. According to a New York study, the Department of Education was one of the primary agencies to alert the health department that people were getting sick.
What is the best line of defense against H1N1 virus and other germs? Hygiene. The word comes from the French word for healthy or healthful and the Latin word for living and is defined by conditions and practices (such as cleanliness) which are conducive to maintaining our health. To stop the spread of dangerous viruses, everyone has a role in maintaining good hygiene; from parents arming their students with hand sanitizers, to school administrators ensuring that surfaces are properly cleaned. Even for students maintaining their first apartment or dorm, hygiene should be top of mind.
Hygiene is more than just cleaning. Disinfecting to kill disease-causing germs provides an additional safeguard. Viruses can survive for hours or even days on doorknobs, countertops, handrails, bathroom fixtures, desktops, athletic equipment, and other high-touch areas. In fact, a recent model simulating virus spread found that without adequate surface disinfection, even the benefits of good hand washing practices were nullified, and there was a continued risk of disease.
So as our children start classes, we should remember that good hygiene includes disinfecting high-touch surfaces in living areas; whether it be a fourth grader’s desktop, or a freshman’s first kitchen counter. Parents, students and school administrators must implement good disinfection practices for all common areas so we can continue to learn and educate.