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Schools ill prepared for pandemics reports new study

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
pandemic, school children, natural disasters, school violence, bioterorist

School children are at significant risk in the event of a pandemic. Because many of them are confined to a limited area for many hours infection can rapidly spread. According to a new study, many US schools in the US are unprepared to handle a pandemic. Researchers affiliated with St. Louis University Medical Center published their findings in the October 2012 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers note that schools are generally considered to be safe havens for millions of children and the greatest socializing institutions after the family. However, the recent experiences with natural disasters, in-school violence, acts of terrorism, and the threat of pandemic flu demonstrate the need for schools to be prepared for all-hazard crisis possibilities. To assess school readiness for bioterrorist attacks or flu outbreaks, the investigators surveyed approximately 2,000 nurses in 26 states who worked with children of all ages, ranging from elementary to high school.

Although there are no federal laws requiring all school districts to have emergency-management plans, 32 states have reported having laws or other policies that do require plans. An estimated 95% of school districts reported that they have a plan; however, there is great variability in these plans. The researchers found that 85% of schools had a written disaster plan as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics; however, they found, that plans for health emergencies were particularly lacking. Less than 50% of the plans specifically addressed pandemic preparedness. Furthermore, just over 40% of schools had updated their plans since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which spread through 214 nations, killed more than 18,000 people, and hit school-aged children hardest.

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The researcher note that some models suggest that a future pandemic could make 90 million people sick and cause more than 209,000 deaths in the United States alone. However, according to the survey results, only 20% of schools have stockpiled alcohol-based hand rub. Another worrisome finding was that most schools failed to report cases of flu-like symptoms or other potentially serious illnesses to, which could hinder efforts to detect outbreaks early.

The researchers wrote: “School preparedness for disasters and infectious disease emergencies is essential, yet many schools are lacking in adequate plans. U.S. schools must continue to address gaps in infectious disease emergency planning, including developing better plans, coordinating these plans with local and regional disaster response agency plans, and testing the plans through disaster drills and exercises.”

In regard to national disasters, the researchers note that children are likely to be in school when they occur. Thus, they recommend that federal agencies should take a leadership role in providing schools with models for preparation, shelter-in-place, evacuation, reunification of children with caregivers, and other aspects of disaster preparedness. Federal and state government agencies should increase the resources provided to school districts to ensure that schools can prepare appropriately for disasters that are likely to occur in their areas. State and local disaster drills and exercises should include schools as potential direct or indirect sites of disasters. Special attention should be given to evacuation and reunification plans in these drills.

Reference: Pediatrics