Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 4Topic 5
Focusing On Epidemics

The immigrant ghettoes of New York City were not healthy places 100 years ago. Overcrowded tenements, a lack of light and fresh air, and overworked people meant diseases started and spread quickly. The great influenza epidemic of 1918 took 12,000 lives. But while New York was a breeder of disease, it was also the place where early experiments in public health were tried, including laboratories, visiting public health officers, and water chlorination. These efforts brought down the death rate dramatically in New York's ghettoes.

Today, with modern vaccines and drugs, we have brought most deadly diseases under control. AIDS is an exception, but even here there has been great progress. Still, non-fatal diseases--like colds and flus--can spread rapidly, especially in places where large numbers of people gather together. And, you guessed it, your school is one of those places. You probably remember times--perhaps, last winter--when dozens or hundreds of students were out sick. For more on the history of epidemics, visit these websites: www.amnh.org/exhibitions/epidemic

In this activity, you will have the chance to study the course of disease as it spreads through your school--and think of ways to prevent it from happening again.

Researching Epidemics
Start this activity by researching the last time a disease spread through your school. The best place to start is with the school nurse and the person in charge of keeping attendance records. The nurse can tell you when the disease began, how widely it spread, and when it stopped. The attendance person can give you the numbers. How many people got sick? Which classes were affected first? Which classes were affected last? And so on. These, of course, are private records so just ask for the numbers of people--not their names.

If you cannot get this information, try researching epidemics in history. You might want to study the great influenza epidemic of 1918 or today's AIDS epidemic.

Stopping Epidemics With Public Health Measures
With the information you have about the last time a disease went through your school, it's time to think about measures to stop it from happening again. You might talk to your school nurse or local public health officials to find out ways to do this. Typical methods include the following: 1) disease prevention: what kinds of information can you pass on to students to help them avoid getting sick; 2) information gathering and processing: who is getting sick and how many are getting sick; 3) limiting exposure; what are the measures you can take to prevent students who are sick from passing germs.

But remember, public health measures have to be practical and fair. The best way to stop a disease from spreading is to close down the school, but that is not practical. And isolating an entire class with a few sick students is not fair to the healthy ones. In designing your measures, you have to balance many things.

Presenting Your Public Health Measures
You could write up a report about what you have found or offer a visual display for the bulletin board. Maybe you want to design a poster that tells students how to avoid getting sick when diseases are spreading around the school. Ask your teacher if you can post it in the classroom or around the school.

Another idea is to re-enact an epidemic. Have some students play sick students, healthy students, teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers, administrators like principals, and the school nurse or nursing staff.