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This is such an important health message I am reprinting this recent column from the Arizona Daily Star for my ParentKidsRight readers.

How do you WHACK the flu?

Emulate the five schools in the Pittsburgh area where children were taught a five-step program to reduce respiratory infections.

A recent study in Pediatrics Infectious Disease Journal by Samuel Stebbins of the University of Pittsburgh compared children in schools given a special hand and cough hygiene program with those in schools not given this program. In the schools that taught this hygiene program there was a 52% reduction in confirmed cases of influenza A and a 26% reduction in total school absences compared to control, schools. There was no reduction in case of influenza B for unexplained reasons but influenza B occurs in younger children and later in the season, factors that may have played a role.

The children were taught a rather simple and easy to remember program:

• (W)ash or sanitize hands often

• (H)ome is where you stay when you’re sick

• (A)void touching eyes, nose and mouth

• (C)over your coughs and sneezes

•(K)eep away from sick people

Now that the respiratory infection season is upon us, adapt this great program to teach at home. Soap and water is best, but hand sanitizer is great to have with you when there is no bathroom handy. The recommended usage was four times during the school day: on arrival, before and after lunch, and when leaving school.

At home where there is a bathroom with soap and water, teach your kids (and remind yourself) to wash up before and after meals and snacks, before going to the refrigerator or cabinet to get out food to cook, after using the toilet, after friends leave, after blowing your nose, and of course whenever the hands are dirty. Teach children the safe use of hand sanitizer and be sure there is one in every backpack. Keep extra hand sanitizers around, especially if someone has a cold.

Make a game out of teaching your children (and reminding yourself) the correct way to cough or sneeze which is in the crook of your arm. If you have time to grab a tissue in which to sneeze or cough be sure to dispose of it properly. If you have a cold keep a plastic bag at hand for used tissues.

The hardest thing to teach anybody, child or grownup, is to keep the hands away from the face. We humans touch our faces hundreds of times a day. Eyes itch, noses twitch and mouths are soooo handy to stash something like a pencil in. Maybe this is why viruses so successfully evolved along with us. A respiratory virus turns our nose into a dripping faucet and we touch our face a lot thereby helping the virus jump to its next victim.

Reminding kids to keep their hands out of their face doesn’t work very well. One family videoed their 6-year-old twins to show them how often they touched their faces and asked them to remind each other to stop. This had only limited success. Maybe it’s time to ask children to think of a creative way to minimize hand-face contact. We adults haven’t figured it out, maybe they can.

In the meantime when kids are playing for a long time or doing homework suggest breaks for hand hygiene, especially if the child has a cold.