Outsmart back-to-school bugs

When the kids get back in school, so do many of the common contagious germs. Staying healthy during the school year requires a combination of both medical science and common sense.

Mandatory vaccinations prior to entering school have greatly decreased the incidence of some of the most common and, at times, life-threatening viral and bacterial infections. Shots for pertussis, diphtheria, mumps, measles, rubella, hemophilus, polio, varicella, meningitis and hepatitis have made most of these diseases much less common in the U.S.

In 2006, the Virginia Department of Health required a tetanus, pertussis and diptheria booster for all rising sixth graders to prevent possible increases in these illnesses. Pertussis, or whooping cough, has periodically reared its head over the last few years.

Another infection of concern among school- and college-age children has been bacterial meningitis. Nearly every year in Virginia, there has been at least a case or two of meningitis. Close contact with individuals with meningitis, such as those living in college dormitories, make contracting the disease more likely. This bacterial infection can cause severe and even fatal neurologic consequences. The vaccine to prevent this disease has been mandatory for college entrance and is now recommended for school-age children.

Chickenpox (varicella) is another common viral infection that has been preventable through vaccination for several years. It is recommended that children receive two shots, one at 12 months and the second at age 4.

Last year, we saw an early epidemic of influenza. This was unusual for two reasons. First, the cause was an influenza virus that has not been seen in several years (H1N1). Second, it arose earlier in the season than expected. H1N1 infections were seen starting in October 2009 and the infection quickly spread throughout the nation. To avoid the same problem this year, the vaccine is already available at many vaccination sites.

Despite our strides in preventing disease through vaccines, many families still fail to have their children adequately vaccinated. One reason is fear regarding the safety of the shots. This is in part due to a study published a few years ago implicating the MMR vaccine as a cause of autism. This study was later found to be flawed and unreliable. Ten of the co-authors of the paper have since renounced their findings and the publishing journal has fully retracted the study. Several subsequent and more recent studies have found no link to vaccines and autism.

However, some individuals and groups still perpetuate this false information. The fallout of this and other vaccine controversies is that some individuals continue to refuse immunization. Unfortunately, this puts the rest of the population at risk for contracting these preventable diseases.

Other prevention strategies for minimizing the transmission of disease are common sense, but equally as important in keeping our kids healthy. Children should be urged to wash or sanitize their hands frequently in school. Sick children should stay home until they are considered no longer contagious. Finally, emphasize adequate sleep, a healthy diet and daily exercise/activity to help keep the immune system functioning properly.

The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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