U.S. Schools receive a failing grade in pandemics
Despite the global awareness of biological terrorism, emerging infectious diseases and the impact of diseases such as influenza, a majority of schools in the United States remain unprepared for a biological event. Only 40 percent of schools have updated their infection control/pandemic preparedness according to a study published in the American Journal of Infection Control. The study, conducted by Saint Louis University suggests that many schools in the United States are not prepared for a biological event despite experiences from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic event. As the threat from naturally occurring infectious disease and intentional acts of bioterrorism grow, the importance of community preparedness will increased. We know that one of the keys to a successful outcome in disaster situations is the preparation of local response agencies. Traditional responders and non-traditional responders (public health, hospitals) are the primary responders in any community during times of crisis. Unfortunately, hospital and public health preparedness may still be lacking. Schools should be included in the non-traditional responder group, considered part of critical infrastructure and as such, should be given direction for biologic preparedness according to their role in a biologic event. Best media coverage from Science Daily (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120830105323.htm)
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These findings question the general preparedness of critical infrastructure. The Saint Louis study looked at responses from about 2000 school nurses encompassing only in 26 states. If the results truly represent the biological preparedness efforts (or lack thereof) the school preparedness situation could be much, much worse and equate to greater risks. Closing schools during a biologic or pandemic event will not replace preparedness as studies have shown that kids don't often stay home.
Traditional elementary and high schools draw students together from a variety of social, economic, and cultural background. Bringing a student population together to share ventilation systems, food, water and sanitation, in close quarters, provides opportunity for disease spread. With this in mind, school systems must be a leader in educating students on proper hygiene and infection control measures. Non-pharmacological interventions are vital to prevent the spread of disease and include hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and appropriate social distancing. These simple measures are important for everyday health promotion but could be even more important in preventing or limiting the spread of influenza.
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According to the Saint Louis study, less than one-third of the sample schools maintained a supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). Even more concerning is the over 20% of the staff in these schools have no members trained in the schools disaster plan. Infection control training for students was reported by only one third of schools and conducted usually once a year or less.
The study also asserts a positive note, finding that nearly 75% of school nurses have recieved seasonal flu vaccination.While this is good news, its only a drop in the bucket. One person (school nurse) vaccinated for seasonal influenza will do little to stop the spread of the disease. When it comes to emerging diseases and intentional biologic releases there may be no vaccine and we'll need to rely on those non-pharmacological interventions.