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The Flu and You
It is flu season and if you have not had a significant number of your kids out with the virus consider yourself lucky. To help next year it would be a great time for a lesson on what a virus is and perhaps use this science to lessen the impact on these students next year.
Viruses are a huge diverse group of biological agents. We do not classify them as living (and they are not part of a domain or kingdom). Some scientists will call them organisms because they contain genetic material and have the ability to evolve. Classification as an organism or not is not as important as classification of the different types of viral agents themselves.
All Viruses can contain either DNA or RNA genetic materials. They enter a host cell by binding to receptor proteins. Once there they manipulate the host cells to produce new individual virus particles. But, there are batch of viruses out there. You may have information in your science books about the HIV virus, the West Nile Virus, and the influenza virus. Let’s focus just on influenza for a bit.
About 5 to 20% of the US population contracts one or more forms of influenza each year. The Center for Disease Control says that over 200,000 folks are hospitalized each year with one type of flu or another. They have a general classification of A, B and C flu viruses. C is not generally an important one for humans but A is the one that scientists worry about causing a pandemic. This class of flu viruses includes swine flu (H1N1), the Hong Kong flu, the Asian flu, and the Spanish Flu of 1918. Millions of people died during outbreaks of those last three.
The virus enters the body generally through the mucous membranes. This can be in the eye, nose, or throat. The body responds with shivers, aches, sore throats, all sorts of cold like symptoms including a high fever. Your body heats up to try to slow down the viral replication and muster defenses. While this is happening you will generally be coughing. That cough will allow the virus to spread to nearby folks or surfaces where any hand can pick up a viral hitch hiker.
Schools have become better at cleaning desk and counter surfaces during flu season. I have never seen any of our custodians clean the door handles or the stair railings. So, at the first of every period we would spray the desks, wash the handles and wash our hands. We did not keep statistics but it would be good to compare one year’s flu numbers to the next if we could get a significant number of classes to participate in precautionary cleaning.
There are lots of web sites for all age ranges to help in your virus education.
For younger students the American Museum of Natural History site is exceptional.
For middle level MSP2 presents some good lessons.
For high school Access Excellence does one of the best jobs.
Whichever web site you select the key idea here is structure and function. Hang a great big print out of a virus on the wall. There are lots of microscopic photographs on the web (just Google Virus in the image browser). This gives the kids something to focus on as they are learning about these mighty little menaces. From there you can focus on the physical structure or the DNA-RNA connections.
Perhaps one of the most beneficial lessons you can send home with kids is from the CDC and health care professionals regarding why antibiotics do not work to treat viruses. So, many parents drag their poor sick kids to the doctor’s office and beg for the Dr. to give them a pill that will magically treat the flu. This is not possible and understanding why is not only good science but good everyday knowledge.