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Stopping the Spread of GI Illnesses in Schools

Gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses are among the most common maladies for young children, spreading rapidly through classes and schools. Using disinfectants on desks and hands, though, can slow the rampage of a stomach bug. Included: Tips for using disinfectants in classrooms.

Most schools have faced an invasion of a stomach bug. Gastrointestinal (GI) illnesses that spread rapidly through classrooms cause misery and millions of student absences each year, not to mention decimating the teacher ranks.

A study by researchers from Childrens Hospital Boston, the primary pediatric teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School., though, showed that a few simple preventative measures can significantly reduce the spread of GI illnesses in schools.

The study, Reducing Absenteeism From Gastrointestinal and Respiratory Illness in Elementary School Students, published in the June 2008 issue of Pediatrics, showed that absenteeism rates for GI illnesses were lower in classrooms where teachers used disinfecting wipes once a day on desktops and helped students use alcohol-based hand sanitizers before and after lunch.

In conducting the study at an elementary school in Avon, Ohio, researchers found that 16 percent of students who had used hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes on their desks stayed home with a GI illness during the study, while 24 percent of students who did not use disinfectants were out sick.

Dr. Thomas Sandora, one of the lead researchers, talked with Education World about the study results and implications for schools.

Dr. Thomas Sandora

Education World: What was surprising about the studys findings?

Dr. Thomas Sandora: The study actually confirmed what we already suspected; that practicing good hand hygiene and disinfecting classroom surfaces would reduce absenteeism due to stomach illnesses.

EW: Does the fact that the study involved such a small sample of students mean that the findings should be viewed cautiously?

Dr. Sandora: The study findings were statistically significant, and so the sample size was not a concern.

EW: Why are younger children more prone to gastrointestinal illnesses?

Dr. Sandora: Children in schools are at risk for gastrointestinal illnesses because they frequently come into contact with peers with these illnesses and because of poor hand hygiene.

EW: How can schools use this study?

Dr. Sandora: I think schools should consider implementing similar infection control protocols in their classrooms to help reduce absenteeism. Keeping a canister of disinfecting wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer in your classroom is a simple way to help prevent the spread of infections.

EW: Some U.S. schools and districts have banned the use of alcohol-based sanitizers because of the risk of alcohol poisoning in children and some research shows other sanitizers are more effective. What are your views on this and what can schools use instead?

I think schools should consider implementing similar infection control protocols in their classrooms to help reduce absenteeism.
Dr. Sandora: Alcohol-based hand sanitizers should not be ingested, and young children should always be directly supervised by a responsible adult when using any product that could potentially be ingested -- including alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Every school must set its own policy.

EW: Some health experts also are concerned about over-exposing children to disinfectants, because of the possible affects of chemicals on children and the risks of creating bacteria and viruses that are resistant to disinfectants. New York State, for example, requires that only green cleaners be used in schools. How would you respond to those concerns?

Dr. Sandora: Green cleaners generally clean, but do not disinfect. Every school needs to make its own decision, but using a product that is an EPA-registered disinfectant is an excellent way to kill germs living on surfaces.

EW: Why do you think that the study showed that sanitizing surfaces had no affect on the spread of respiratory illnesses, such as colds?

Dr. Sandora: Although respiratory illnesses also are spread most commonly on the hands, preventing transmission requires almost constant vigilance because of frequent contamination after events such as sneezing or wiping the nose. It is hard for people to maintain that level of attention to hygiene during a busy day, but it is still recommended to cover your cough and perform hand hygiene often when you have a cold.

EW: What are the implications of this study for teachers overall health?

Dr. Sandora: Because of frequent contact with young children who are ill, teachers can be exposed to a large number of germs that could lead to illness. Using disinfecting wipes on surfaces and hand sanitizer in their classrooms should help reduce the number of germs in the classroom and may help keep teachers healthy, as well.

This e-interview with Dr. Thomas Sandora is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Published 08/13/2008