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Stop spread of childhood germs at home
Supplied Children can suffer from all kinds of common ailments

These days it's unlikely that sending your children to school will pose a major health risk.

The development of effective vaccines over the past three decades means few WA children will experience significant time away from the classroom with the horrendous itchiness and high temperatures of the chicken pox, or the awful ache and swelling of the salivary glands produced by the mumps.

Yet, most parents will tell you the classroom is still a living Petri dish, with thousands of primary school children coming home each term with gastro, head lice, school sores or the common cold.

Parents are forced to take time away from work, and just as one child gets better, the others fall like dominos to the same persistent problem. Left unchecked, the germs and bugs spread through the classroom, and sometimes the entire school population, more than once in one season.

While the much-repeated mantra of "always wash your hands" goes a long way towards reducing the levels of illness found in classrooms, health experts say vigilance and prevention are the keys to keeping the common bugs at bay.

Public health physician Donna Mak, of WA Health's communicable disease control directorate, says childhood illnesses cannot be avoided completely, but parents who recognise symptoms early, and have their children treated immediately, can help stem the spread, not just in their own family, but in the whole school population. "If the advice from the health practitioner is that the child needs to stay at home until the symptoms have cleared, then parents really need to follow that advice," Professor Mak said.

"If they don't follow the advice, it could not only impede the child's recovery, but could also increase the chance of the infected child transmitting the disease to other children."

Professor Mak said the more common classroom ailments such as colds, head lice and gastroenteritis were the kinds of infections experienced parents could spot easily, and they could share treatments and remedies with other parents, family members and neighbours.

"Not all illnesses contracted in the classroom need to be seen or treated by a GP, but parents should not allow children who are showing symptoms like a rash, fever or vomiting, however mild, to continue going to school," Professor Mak said. "It's impossible to catch everything straight away every time, but it's not very responsible to allow the infection to keep spreading through your child's classroom."

Cases of measles, mumps and chicken pox do still occur occasionally, and are notifiable diseases that WA Health and the school administration should be alerted to. Most cases of measles in school-aged children were not home grown, most had been contracted overseas, she said. "The good news is that very few of these illnesses are life threatening, and most just require a common sense approach. Although it's hard for WA Health to put a number on the cases seen each year, we know that head lice, colds and flu, gastro and school sores occur most commonly, coming in clusters and running through school populations."

Keeping up fluids with energy replacement drinks and water, and keeping children home were still the best remedies. In some cases school sores needed antibiotics.

Principal nursing advisor with the Child and Adolescent Community Health service Isabel Redfern said preventing the spread of germs in the classroom started at home.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

Head lice (pediculosis)

These tiny parasites live on the head and reproduce by laying eggs (nits) close to the scalp. They are spread through close contact and can run from one head to another in seconds. They are not associated with or transmitted due to poor hygiene.

Influenza

A common, acute, respiratory, viral infection, influenza is classed as notifiable. Symptoms include fever, malaise, chills, headache, muscle pain, sore throat and cough. Children should be kept home and WA Health and the school must be notified.

School sores (impetigo)

Caused by bacteria, symptoms include itchy pustules and scabs. The infection is passed from one student to another through direct contact and while the pustules are still present, the impetigo is infectious.

Gastro (gastroenteritis)

There are many common viral causes along with bacteria or parasites. The micro- organisms that cause gastro are found in bodily fluids. School children usually become infected after sharing contaminated toys, or touching surfaces. Hand washing, keeping children home and plenty of fluids will help prevent and lessen the severity.

Hand foot and mouth disease

Unrelated to the disease found in animals, this is a common, acute, viral infection. Symptoms include fever and blisters in the mouth and on hands and feet. The virus is airborne, but can also be transmitted through the faecal-oral route.

SOURCES: WA Health; Child and Adolescent Community Health service For more information and fact sheets visit the child health section on the WA Health website, health.wa.gov.au