Pencils, notebooks, colds, flus, head lice: going back to school often means picking up more than just classroom supplies. Even children’s lunch boxes — meant to keep food safe — can be carriers of bacteria that cause diarrhea and food poisoning.
A recent study conducted by Lysol and the Global Hygiene Council surveyed 14,000 mothers of five- to 12-year-old children in 14 countries, including 1,000 in Canada, with a focus on hand hygiene.
Eighty-eight per cent of Canadian respondents said they teach their child to wash their hands after using the bathroom and cough into their sleeve, but only 53 per cent said their children wash their hands before eating lunch.
Dirty hands at mealtime can be a perfect way to transmit a whole range of illnesses, especially during December and January, when influenza season typically hits this province and runs rampant in schools and daycares.
Even illnesses such as chicken pox, pink eye and hand, foot and mouth disease can be spread through hand-to-hand contact.
“It’s a cliché, but washing the hands is probably the most important thing that people can do in terms of protecting themselves from the spread of infection that we don’t have vaccines for in particular, but also for some of those viruses that we do have vaccines for, because, of course, vaccines are not 100 per cent,” said Dr. Catherine Donovan, associate medical officer of health for Eastern Health.
“We’ve tended to focus on teaching children to wash their hands after they’ve gone to the bathroom, but we also need to teach them to wash them before eating, and if they’ve been in contact with a lot of people.”
“Obviously we see a lot of transmission back and forth of respiratory viruses — it’s the one thing we’re aware of the most because we see it coming home the most often — but kids who have either a viral or bacterial gastro infection, they’re at the lunch table and their hands are over everything,” said Dr. Donald Low, microbiologist in chief at Ontario’s Mount Sinai Hospital, and Canadian representative on the Global Hygiene Council.
Hand sanitizer is a good option and can be tucked into a child’s lunch box, both Low and Donovan said, but should be used only if soap and water isn’t available.
Liquid sanitizers aren’t antibacterial and don’t breed antibiotic resistance, but kill bacteria with alcohol.
If there’s visible dirt on a child’s hand, however, there’s no substitution for washing it.
The council found that children’s lunches and the bags and boxes they’re carried in cause sickness. Only 43 per cent of Canadian moms said they put their child’s lunch in the fridge after making it, which opens the food up to bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.
If lunch boxes aren’t cleaned daily, crumbs and spills can also be the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, Low said.
“It was surprising that less than half of the parents in Canada that were surveyed didn’t bother cleaning their child’s lunch box at the end of the day,” he told The Telegram. “Especially during the winter months, the fruits and vegetables that we have in our homes don’t come from local gardeners. They usually come from other countries, whether it’s the United States, Mexico or Columbia. Often it happens that these fruits and vegetables get contaminated because the type of water they use for irrigation may not be potable and could be contaminated, or animals and sometimes even birds can transmit pathogenic, virulent, disease-causing bacteria or parasites to the food that we eventually eat.
“When you have those fruits and vegetables and any other raw products in that lunch box, it can contaminate the container. If you’ve got bits of food that are stuck to the sides or the corners, that can provide a little niche where bacteria can grow and thrive.”
As a second part of the study, seven elementary schools in the United States were tested for bacteria.
While the level of bacteria in the bathrooms was low, likely thanks to vigilant cleaning schedules, almost half of the school eating areas were contaminated.
Donovan said bacteria is a concern on any desk, whether it’s in a school, a workplace or at home, since they tend not to get the same kind of cleaning that kitchens or bathrooms do.
It’s difficult for a child to maintain a clean space at their desk at school, and if they eat lunch there, it could pose a problem, even if their hands are clean.
“What a parent might do, if that’s the only choice the child has, is to try and pack their food into containers so they’re not putting it on the desk. Provide a paper napkin to lay out on the desk, with a fork or spoon if appropriate,” Donovan explained.
Dealing with lice
When it comes to head lice, it’s a concern for parents, but not a big public health issue and not related to cleanliness.
Lice don’t carry any worrisome diseases, Donovan said, but are a definite nuisance, and can happen to any child.
“It does get people excited,” she said. “It’s easy to transmit from child to child, particularly in close contact. What we recommend is that parents do check their children’s head on a regular basis, when they’re going to shampoo. If you do find something, you’re going to need to get appropriate shampoos and treatments, and your local pharmacist can certainly give you advice on that. It really is the parents’ doing the examination before the child goes into the classroom setting. For the most part it is easily treatable, but you do have to look for it.”
It comes down to parents teaching their children about good hygiene and proper social interaction at school.
Hugging and not kissing, not sharing water bottles and not eating food someone else has taken a bite out of are all common sense tips children should be taught, Donovan said.
Even teenagers, who might share straws or lipsticks, need to be reminded.
Ensuring immunizations are up to date and keeping children home if they’re feeling unwell are also important, she added.
TIPS FOR GUARDING AGAINST GERMS AT SCHOOL
The Global Hygiene Council offers these tips to protect children against viruses and bacteria at school:
- Hand-washing: Get your children into the habit of washing their hands regularly, particularly after using the bathroom and before eating, both at home and at school. Remind your children to wash their hands before opening their lunch box.
- Surface disinfection: Teach your child to wipe off the desk or cafeteria table with disinfectant wipes before eating lunch. This will decrease the chances of them ingesting harmful bacteria from commonly-touched surfaces, which are more likely to be contaminated. Be aware that moist environments, such as a water fountain, can harbour germs.
- Hygenic food preparation and storage: Disinfect your child’s lunch box every day with disposable disinfectant wipes or soap and water, and rinse. Wash raw fruit, salad and veggies thoroughly before packing them in your child’s lunch box or bag. Freshly prepare food each day. The shorter amount of time that food is stored, the less of an opportunity germs have to grow. Refrigerate your child’s lunch box after preparation, and consider using a freezer pack to keep in chilled.
Source; The Global Hygiene Council