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While fears of a full blown outbreak of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, seem to have waned since World Health Organization director-general Margaret Chan declared a "public health emergency of international concern" last April, worries that the coming flu season will be a particularly ripe time for the virus to spread are still running high.
Coming in contact with the virus - be it from a coughing or sneezing passerby - and a simple touch to one's nose or mouth is all it takes for the influenza to spread, and the country's schools, veritable hot zones of coughing, sneezing and touching, are being focused upon as a "ground zero" for proactive prevention.
"Kids in particular are known to put their hands in their mouths or touch their mouths more often than adults," said Irit Livne, the Education Ministry's supervisor for school health and health education. "And when it comes to H1NI, this is precisely the problem, because that's how the virus is spread. If someone who's infected sneezes, for example, and then someone else touches a table where that person sneezed and then touches his mouth, he could become infected."
"However," Livne added, "just as the flu can spread very easily, it's also very easy to prevent."
According to Livne, schools have been receiving instruction from the Education and Health ministries since last spring, when the virus became a matter of international concern. Chief among those recommendations, she said, was simply washing one's hands, as a good lather of soap and water can cut off the virus's path, before it spreads to someone else.
"We've given guidelines to the schools - principals and teachers - which include a request that they make toilet paper, soap and paper towels abundantly available to their pupils, and to make sure that the pupils wash their hands constantly," Livne said. "If everyone follows these guidelines, it will be the easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus."
Another of the guidelines, Livne added, was that the Education Ministry had begun requesting that parents keep their children home from school if they are not feeling well, no matter what.
"A lot of times, kids wake up in the morning, say they aren't feeling well, and their parents give them some paracetamol and send them out the door anyway. We're asking that parents don't do this," Livne said. "If the child isn't feeling well, maybe it's not H1N1, hopefully not, but to be on the safe side, he should stay home until he feels better or has been to the doctor. The last thing they should do is come to school."
Orit Cohen, a high-school teacher in Ashdod, said that her school had received "special hand sanitizer," which doesn't require water, that the pupils were being asked to use.
"On top of that, I've noticed that the janitors have begun cleaning the bathrooms more often, and have been replenishing the soap and paper towels," Cohen said.
"But since the school year began, each teacher has been required to hold discussions with their pupils about the virus, so they know more about it and can prevent it. We even had a large assembly, with all of the pupils and staff, in which the principal discussed the dangers of H1N1, and talked to the pupils about how to stop it from spreading."
Regarding the Education Ministry's guidelines that kids say home if they aren't feeling well, Cohen said that had always been the policy.
"We've always asked that parents keep their kids home from school in these cases," she said. "But now, because of the coming flu season, it's being taken much more seriously."