Friday, January 04, 2019

Whether We Acknowledge It Or Not

I once read a study in which the researchers found that preschoolers touch their mouth or nose on average of once every three minutes. This more or less matches my own observations over the past couple decades of working with young children. If hand washing protocols were strictly enforced, the kids would spend most of their time at the sink. They don't and this is why I consider preschool hand washing to be a bit like kabuki theater: the goal isn't necessarily to prevent the spread of illness as much as to develop habits that will serve them, and all of us, in the future when their hands, presumedly, aren't so frequently contaminated with fresh mucus.

In other words, we strive to keep our place clean and do what we can, within reason, to reduce the spread of illness, but it is in the nature of preschool for illnesses to spread, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

About one in 20 children are born with a genetic mutation that leaves them at risk for developing leukemia. Not all of them eventually get the once fatal but now 90 percent curable cancer. The ones who do get it are those whose immune systems are not properly primed by environmental factors.

According to cancer scientist Mel Greaves, "For an immune system to work properly, it needs to be confronted by an infection in the first year of life. Without that confrontation with an infection, the system is left unprimed and will not work properly." The problem is that in developed nations, the use of antiseptics, antibacterials, and disinfectants coupled with babies spending less time outdoors, experiencing fewer social contacts, and a decrease in breast feeding, has lead to more babies whose immune systems have not been properly prepared to fight the disease. This has lead to a steady increase in cases of childhood leukemia in the UK, Europe, the US and other developed nations.

In other words, a susceptible child suffers chronic inflammation that is linked to modern super-clean homes and this inflammation changes his or her susceptibility to leukaemia so that it is transformed into the full-blown condition.

I've long said, only half joking, that one of the primary functions of preschools in our society is to help educate immune systems. Of course, we wash our hands and have policies in place designed to reduce the spread of illness, but at any given moment there is still some bug or other running through the place. After decades of spending my days in this pit of colds, coughs, and pink eye, my own immune system has unquestionably become stronger through constant and repeated exposure. And I see it happening with the children as well: our two-year-olds miss more days due to illness than our three-year-olds, who in turn are sick more often than our fours. One of our school's missions, whether we acknowledge it or not, is to send them off to elementary school with robust, well-educated immune systems, prepared to tackle the wider world of disease they will find there.

That said, I know it's a conundrum for parents who, understandably and rightly, want to help their child avoid illness, but increasingly we seem to be learning that there is such thing as too clean. It's a balance we must find. Our school, for instance, has stopped using antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, opting for the traditional stuff, while we still disinfect our surfaces, doorknobs, and other likely places at least once a day. Of course, we are outdoors a lot, a place where there is plenty of dirt and sand, and from which children often return quite filthy. And, indeed, we are a place where dozens of children flock together day after day, creating a sort of communal immune system, again whether we acknowledge it or not.

It seems likely that leukemia isn't the only serious illness that can be avoided with a properly primed immune system. So even as we do our best to prevent illness, whether we acknowledge it or not, preschools are an important way of ensuring that our immune systems are as well-educated as our minds.

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