By Joseph Harkins
Every kid gets sick of school at some time or another. What parents should know is that these same children can get sick at school as well.
Consider: with so many kids crammed into one place for so many hours of the day, infectious diseases can spread rapidly.
To assess school readiness for bioterrorist attacks or flu outbreaks, researchers at St. Louis University Medical Center surveyed about 2,000 nurses in 26 states who worked with kids of all ages, ranging from elementary to high school.
Eighty-five percent of schools had a written disaster plan as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Infection Control. Plans for health emergencies were particularly lacking.
Fewer than half of the plans specifically addressed pandemic preparedness. And just more than 40 percent of schools had updated their plans since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which spread through 214 countries, killed more than 18,000 people, and hit school-aged children hardest.
”Community awareness of the school district's disaster plan will optimize a community's capacity to maintain the safety of its school-aged population in the event of a school-based or greater community crisis,” the report stated.
The study was intended to stimulate awareness of the disaster-preparedness process in schools as a part of a global, community-wide preparedness plan. Pediatricians, other health care professionals, first responders, public health officials, the media, school nurses, school staff and parents are urged to be unified in their efforts to support schools in the prevention of, preparedness for, response to, and recovery from a disaster.
Autumn is when rates of influenza pick up, building to a peak between November and March. Even though scientists carefully monitor flu viruses in circulation each year and plan ahead to prepare seasonally specific vaccines, influenza infections can be fatally unpredictable.
For the upcoming season, the good news is that nothing so far has raised red flags that the next great flu pandemic is imminent in the United States.
Still, the report said some models suggest that a future pandemic could make 90 million people sick and cause more than 209,000 deaths in the United States alone. Yet, just 20 percent of schools have stockpiled alcohol-based hand rub, according to the survey's results.
Most schools also failed to report cases of flu-like symptoms or other worrisome illnesses, which could hinder efforts to detect outbreaks early.
"School preparedness for disasters and infectious disease emergencies is essential, yet many schools are lacking in adequate plans," the researchers wrote. "U.S. schools must continue to address gaps in infectious disease emergency planning, including developing better plans, coordinating these plans with local and regional disaster response agency plans, and testing the plans through disaster drills and exercises."