OK, soldiers, we are preparing for battle. Out there, in the classrooms, on the door handles, even on the glue sticks, are millions, gazillions of germs. And they’re out to get us.
Noah visited his aunt in Hong Kong, and hasn’t stopped coughing since he stepped off the plane. Jazmine went to Devon and now she’s sneezing and wiping her nose on her sleeve.
We’re back to school, and we’re facing the inevitable back-to-school flu.
It’s not your imagination that everyone seems to get sick in the first few weeks of the Autumn term - there is a scientific reason behind it.
Professor John Oxford is a leading expert on influenza, and the scientific director at Oxford Media and Medicine, and he says that back-to-school flu is simply down to numbers.
“People have been away all over the place – both in England and abroad, and then they return to school and bring their viruses back with them,” explains Oxford. “So back-to-school time is an amazing time for a virus, and a difficult time for us.”
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Not only do schools provide the perfect environment for a virus to spread, but the actual physical structure of a school exacerbates the problem, he says.
“A classroom situation is perfect for a virus," he explains. "The rooms aren’t well ventilated, the windows don’t always open, and you’re in close conditions all day. A virus loves this situation.
"In a school, you [also] have plenty of young people – and younger people tend to be less hygienic; the younger they are, the less hygienic they are.”
Not only that, but the way a school day is organised provides a virus with the optimum conditions for mass-spreading. Students mixing constantly and moving from room to room all day – it doesn’t take long for one sick student to expose their germs to the whole school.
So what can we do about it?
You might think that we’ve reached a point where we’re over-zealous in our anti-germ attitudes – becoming too obsessed with washing hands and dousing surfaces with bleach – but you’d be wrong, says Oxford.
“All our fight-back methods are needed, because even then some virus mutants or lucky ones will break through and infect us,” he argues. “Even if we only reduce their absolute numbers 10 or a hundredfold, that is to our benefit.”
Oxford warns that an indifference about germs can lead us back to a dangerous past.
“I do not accept that we can over-do our combat-readiness," he says. "We will never become overprotected and I do fear the opposite: that we become complacent and even antagonistic about vaccines and preventative medicine, and start a return to the pre-science days before Pasteur and Koch, and start believing that the Earth is flat!”
According to Oxford, we’ve got to take a multi-barrier approach. “It’s a question of planning – it’s like a medieval castle – you don’t have one fortress wall, you have four,” he says.
Based on Oxford's advice, here are our top tips to avoid back-to-school flu:
1. Keep away from the snotty ones
For starters, Oxford says we’ve got to stay away from sick people – which he acknowledges is easier said than done when it comes to teachers.
“The first layer of protection is social distance. You want to keep at least 4ft away from someone who is infected,” says Oxford. “This is why it is so hard for teachers, because in the classroom you have children coughing all over the place in a very small space.”
Thinking again about 100 per cent attendance awards, which can result in children coming to school ill, may be an option. You may also want to concentrate on teaching from the front more.
2. Don’t dodge the soap
The next fortress wall you need is soap-shaped.
“The second layer of protection is hand hygiene,” says Oxford. “Viruses hate heat, as Louis Pasteur showed us: if you heat milk up, you’ll kill the virus. So if you use hot water, you’re on your way.”
It doesn’t stop there, though: a quick rinse won’t cut it.
“Viruses don’t like soap, because they’re a lipid structure so if you add soap to them they’ll dissolve. So hot water and soap will get you a long way, but not all the way,” warns Oxford. “With some viruses, like the common cold, soap won’t make a difference. But they don’t like acid or alcohol. So handwashes and hand gels that contain a broad spectrum of antiviral activity will go a long way.”
3. Beware the keyboard
Danger also hides in plain sight: an object you use, along with potentially dozens of others, every day – your keyboard. Containing more germs than a toilet seat, the humble keyboard could be the cause of your sneezing. Oxford recommends wiping this down with antibacterial wipes.
4. Bin the tissue
Whether you use paper tissues, or a handkerchief, whatever you do, you have to get rid of it ASAP, says Oxford. “From an infection point of view, it makes sense to use paper tissues,” explains Oxford. “But you have to make sure you get rid of them quickly. The virus will hang around on the tissue for a while, so either dispose of the paper tissue, or wash the cotton handkerchief.”
5. Use your elbow
If you’re caught off guard without a tissue, instinct tells you to sneeze into your hands, but this is absolutely the worst thing you could do. Instead, says Oxford, you should be sneezing into your elbow.
“Because you’re less likely to transfer the virus to another surface, your elbow is much preferable over your hands,” says Oxford.
6. Stock up on your probiotics
Yoghurts and drinks that promote healthy gut bacteria can help build your body’s natural defences against viruses. Oxford doesn’t think they’re the panacea of virus-fighting, but equally he doesn’t think they’re a waste of time.
“If they worked alongside our portable microbiome in the gut, which seems to be the case, then good could come from them,” he says. “In any case, just to have adults thinking about infection and even taking some action is excellent, and I would like to see more of it.”