Montana Public Radio

Teaching Kids About Epidemics: Dr. Starbuck Explains

Mar 26, 2020

The other day, I was in a very busy, crowded restaurant. While waiting for my food, and looking at all the kids, grandparents, tiny babies and grown-ups who were swarming the place, I saw a boy, totally involved in picking his nose. I couldn’t bring myself to watch what he did with whatever he got out, but his picking did make me start thinking about the coronavirus, a germ which is spreading around the world. 

When an illness attacks a lot of people at the same time and spreads through several towns, we call that an epidemic. Epidemics can be small or big, severe or mild. They eventually go away – and sometimes they come back. When an epidemic spread through many countries or around the world, it’s called a pandemic. 

Epidemics are a part of life on earth; we have had them throughout history. A very famous epidemic, one of the worst ever, occurred in the Middle Ages. It was the bubonic plague, caused by a germ carried by rats. Back then people didn’t know about germs or how to protect themselves, so lots of people got sick and lots died. 

In modern times we’ve had epidemics you probably know about – flu, measles, whooping cough. Thankfully, we know a lot more now so epidemics aren’t as deadly as the plague. 

But they’ re still scary and we still have to protect ourselves. One of the ways we do that is with immunizations, those shots you get from your doctor. Those shots are vaccines and they contain tiny, tiny bits of disease. When those tiny bits are shot into your body, your immune system sees them and makes defensive cells. Later, if you are exposed to the actual disease and live germs cross into your body, your immune system is ready. The defensive cells get to work killing the disease before it makes you sick.   

While immunizations work well, we don’t have one for the coronavirus. Scientists have to do all sorts of experiments and tests in order to develop an effective vaccine. That takes time. Like a year or more. 

So here we are with a pandemic and no vaccine. What to do?

First, do not pick your nose in public! Doing so could give you the coronavirus and give it to others.  Viruses live in the mucus of people’s noses and throats. If someone near you has the coronavirus, when they cough or sneeze bits of germ fly through the air. You might breathe them in or they might land on your table and your fork. When you pick up your fork, you get the germs on your fingers. When you pick your nose – the germs go in. When you touch things like door knobs or faucets with your nose picking, germ-infected fingers, other people will get the virus. 

Whenever there is an epidemic or pandemic, kids have got to wash their hands and face – a lot. You don’t have to go crazy about it, just be reasonable. Wash them before you eat, before you go to bed, and when you come home from school or from playing outside or being out at a party or in public places. Just plain soap and water are strong enough to kill the coronavirus. 

Don’t rub your eyes or touch your face unless your hands are clean. Don’t share water bottles or cups or forks or spoons or plates with others.  

Keep your immune system strong by eating healthy food – lots of fruit and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, and take extra vitamin C. 

Learn how to gargle. Gargling kills germs that hang out in the back of your throat. When a pandemic is going on, it’s smart to gargle at night before you go to bed. 

Finally, try to be smart, not scared. Remember that your parents and teachers and doctors are there to help. It’s also good to know that your immune system works best when you stay calm and brave and focused on the positive things in your life. 

I’m Dr.  Jamison Starbuck and I’m wishing you well.