Schools unprepared for pandemics

When health disasters strike, schools can easily exacerbate the emergency. With so many kids crammed into one place for so many hours of the day, infectious diseases can spread rapidly.

Still, fewer than half of schools around the United States have adequate plans in place to deal with the next pandemic, found a new study.

To assess school readiness for bioterrorist attacks or flu outbreaks, researchers at St. Louis University Medical Center surveyed about 2,000 nurses in 26 states who worked with kids of all ages, ranging from elementary to high school.

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Eighty-five percent of schools had a written disaster plan as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Infection Control. Plans for health emergencies were particularly lacking.

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Fewer than half of the plans specifically addressed pandemic preparedness. And just over 40 percent of schools had updated their plans since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which spread through 214 countries, killed more than 18,000 people, and hit school-aged children hardest.

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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. Yet, just 20 percent of schools have stockpiled alcohol-based hand rub, according to the survey's results.

Most schools also failed to report cases of flu-like symptoms or other worrisome illnesses to, which could hinder efforts to detect outbreaks early.

"School preparedness for disasters and infectious disease emergencies is essential, yet many schools are lacking in adequate plans," the researchers wrote. "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."