About 10 million U.S. kids will head to summer camp in the coming weeks, and there’s new advice to help them have a safe, rewarding experience.

Guidelines published in June’s issue of Pediatrics include a lot of common sense, like proper training for camp staff and openness on the part of parents about campers’ health. The goal is to let kids have fun, make friends, and thrive, with grown-ups covering the basics of safety.

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Cooperation Needed

Daytime and residential camps can be great for children, says the University of Michigan’s Edward Walton, MD. “But it’s crucial that parents, camp officials, and medical professionals work together to make it as safe and problem-free as possible for children,” he says, in a news release.

Walton worked on the American Academy of Pediatrics committee that wrote the guidelines. A clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine, he has studied camp health for 18 years.

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Checklist for Parents

The guidelines offer these general recommendations:

—Choose a camp wisely. Consider the child’s interests and abilities.

—Check the camp’s health policies. All camps should have them in writing, with approval from a doctor familiar with children’s issues.

—Get a checkup. All campers should have had a complete health evaluation by a doctor within the last year (or six months for kids with ongoing conditions like asthma, allergies, seizures, diabetes, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders).

—Get doctor’s orders in writing. Note any medications, dietary needs, medical devices, and physical limitations. Update the camp about any health, travel, or medical changes for the camper.

—Get up to speed on immunizations. Provide the camp with emergency contact information.

—Know that camps should screen all children upon arrival for infectious diseases, health status, and any other problems (such as lice).

—Do not give kids a “drug holiday” during camp. Keep them on any long-term medications during camp. If the camper needs medicines or medical devices, tell the camp if the child can handle it themselves.

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Nipping Homesickness in the Bud

Children may love camp, but pangs of homesickness are common. A little advance reassurance may help avoid that, say the experts. Their advice:

—Involve the child in choosing and preparing for camp.

—Talk openly about homesickness with the child in advance.

—Be positive. An upbeat approach may help the camper feel at ease.

—Arrange short away-from-home trips with friends or relatives before camp. Liken the camp’s time frame to other experiences of similar length that the child enjoyed.

Camps Aren’t Hospitals

Camps also shoulder a lot of responsibility. In a recent survey of Michigan camps, 47 percent of camp health officers said they cared for campers with significant medical needs. Almost half (45 percent) were registered nurses. Virtually all (97 percent) said they had doctors who reviewed their standing orders.

However, 44 percent had only a paramedic’s level of medical training (or less), and four out of 10 said ambulance response time to their camp was more than 10 minutes. Nearly three-quarters said the ambulances would head for a small or rural hospital.

That survey, done in 2001, got responses from 129 camps — half of the camps that were contacted. Michigan has one of the country’s best track records with summer camps, so the results may not be typical, say the researchers, who included Walton.

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Camps’ Duties

Camps should take these steps, say the guidelines:

—Have written health policies approved by a doctor familiar with children’s issues. Screen kids upon arrival for health status, infectious diseases, and other problems (like lice).

—Give parents, kids, and doctors advance notice about strenuous activities. Tell parents about medical conditions that may have higher risks with some activities (such as asthma and scuba diving).

—Establish relationships in advance with local doctors, dentists, emergency rooms, and emergency medical providers.

—Plan ahead with emergency medical workers for prompt responses. Know about local health hazards (such as Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever).

—Keep abreast of health issues and precautions (such as for West Nile virus).

—Maintain any oxygen, medication, and equipment used for emergencies.

—Store and administer medicines safely.

—Staff supervising waterfront activity should be certified in CPR. Give campers instruction before arrival at camp about use of any emergency medications or medical devices.

All camps should have staff that can give on-site first aid and CPR, say the guidelines.

‘A Wonderful Experience’

The reports aren’t meant to be alarming. American kids have been going to camp for 140 years, and research has been shown that many campers have “a wonderful experience” with lasting self-esteem benefits, say Walton and colleagues.

“These results should encourage all involved with camping to strive to make a great experience even better,” they write in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Academy of Pediatrics, Pediatrics, June 2005; vol 115: pp 1770-1773. Walton, E. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 2004; vol 15: pp 274-283.