The study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, looked carefully at the H1N1 flu season in 2009. They studied schoolchildren, classmates and their families as the epidemic was happening. They suspected that many children were spreading the flu to their classmates in school.
Their findings actually disproved that school was an important source of infection. They found instead that the close contact of friends who played together outside of school was a common source of illness. Typically, children who played together outside of school have more close contact with each other. They use little hygiene such as hand washing or covering a cough.
It was striking that children did not get sick from just sitting next to a classmate in school who was sick. This went against the prevailing wisdom of closing schools to prevent the spread of flu.
In reviewing households with sick children, most of the time adults in the household did not get sick from their children. They were probably making a special effort to limit exposure to the obviously ill family member. Again, the study results suggest the more likely source of infection was in the community at large where efforts at hygiene were forgotten or non-existent.
We know that the flu virus does not fly through the air attacking a person over the shoulder while they look the other way. If someone coughs or sneezes on you point-blank within a couple feet, mucus droplets are broadcast with the virus; however, the most common denominator is you. We are the last link to acquire the infection. By touching our own hands to our face and mouth, we’re most likely to get the illness. Hands touch so many public places and surfaces that we forget that our own hands are such germ-laden instruments. Washing hands before eating or food preparation remains one of the most important means of protecting yourself from illness.
The researchers noted that the flu virus spreads very rapidly among school age children. The results reinforce that it is not the classroom or seating arrangement that is the problem. It is more likely due to the fundamental lack of hygiene practices in children and adults in the community that facilitate spread of the disease.
We all can learn a lesson from this study, so be sure to wash up.
– Dr. Bruce Kaler