Sharing the pain: Flu and the curriculum
Primary teachers who chat to a class depleted by flu and colds about what causes such illnesses are actually covering the curriculum. Telling children that viruses can be seen only with electron microscopes and that the word comes from the Latin for "slimy liquid" or "poison" is a good way to introduce them to the idea that "micro-organisms are living organisms that are often too small to be seen. They may be beneficial (in making bread) or harmful (in causing disease)" (key stage 2 science, life and living processes).
Science teachers tackling the issue of how flu jabs work will find that they have sewn up the requirement to teach "how the body's natural defences may be enhanced by immunisation and medicines" (key stage 3 science, life processes and living things).
For 14 to 16-year-olds, flu could be used to teach about the body's defence mechanisms in greater detail (key stage 4 science, health). It is also a way into a discussion of ideas of competition, predation and interdependence of species (key stage 4 science, living things and their environment). For example, viruses are essentially parasites: they need us in oder to survive. They can reproduce only by entering cells and pirating their machinery.
Humans are constantly under attack from other living and competing organisms. Bodies are covered in micro-organisms, many of which are rather nasty but can't do any harm because they are unable to get through the skin and mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. It is these membranes - some of the body's most important barriers to infection - that a flu virus targets, selectively destroying the cells in the upper respiratory tract, bronchial tubes and trachea.
But science teachers are not the only ones who can use infection as a timely classroom resource. As all A-level French teachers will know, Albert Camus's novel La Peste is a study of the disintegration of a community in times of plague.
And history teachers could set their pupils researching the influenza pandemic of 1918, a grim but fascinating topic. The story of how a virus killed 40 million people would catch any child's imagination (and sort out the KS3 historical enquiry attainment target as well).
The virus first appeared in Camp Funston, Kansas, in March 1918. American troops brought it across the Atlantic where it attacked young soldiers made vulnerable by life in the trenches of the First World War. The disease spread around the world from port to port and city to city, killing 12.5 million Indians and 8 million Spaniards on its way. Virtually no country escaped its attentions.
A good place to start a study of the epidemic online is at http:www.discovery.comexpepidemicfluflu.html.