It’s inevitable that wherever young children are together in a group, there will be a high chance that infections will spread. When working in early years, it’s an occupational hazard; with the children touching each other and the toys – often at the same time as wiping their noses and rubbing their eyes! We know all too well how quickly viruses and infections can spread, and often children can be contagious for some time before they show certain symptoms. For the first few years of their lives, their bodies are building up immunity to infections and they will have neither completed their vaccination programme nor have developed good hygiene habits.
In this article, we look at some of the more common infections in children and their causes, how we can prevent their spread and explore the importance of vaccinations.
What causes an infection?
Infections in children can be caused by a variety of harmful microorganisms, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. These microorganisms can invade the body and cause symptoms such as fever, cough, runny nose, diarrhoea, and skin rashes.
The specific cause of infection will vary, depending on the type of microorganism and the method of transmission. Common causes of infections in children include close contact with infected individuals, poor hygiene, underdeveloped immune system, if a child is unvaccinated or comes into contact with contaminated food or water, or exposure to contaminated environments.
The most common infections in children affect their respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, skin, ears and eyes.
“Prevention is better than cure!”
Completely preventing the spread of infections in an early years setting may seem like a daunting task; it requires a combination of good hygiene practices and environmental controls. Here are some steps you can take:
- Hand hygiene: Hand hygiene had a lot of media attention during the coronavirus pandemic, (who can forget singing ‘Happy Birthday’ while washing one’s hands?) Encourage frequent hand washing with soap and water, especially after using the toilet, before and after eating, and after blowing their nose or sneezing. Hand sanitisers can be used in addition or as an alternative when soap and water are not available. Download our handy poster here to display in your setting for the children
- Cover coughs and sneezes: Encourage children and staff to cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue or their elbow to prevent the spread of germs. “Catch it, bin it, kill it.”
- Clean and disinfect surfaces: Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys, tables, doorknobs, and light switches.
- Keep the environment clean: Encourage children to wash their hands after playing and before eating and make sure that common areas, such as toilets and eating areas, are kept clean.
Use personal protective equipment (PPE) when necessary, such as when treating a child with a contagious illness.
- Stay home when sick: Encourage it or make it mandatory for both children and staff to stay home when they are sick and until they are symptom-free for 24 hours to prevent the spread of illness.
- Encourage vaccinations: Encourage children and staff to receive recommended vaccinations to protect against infectious diseases.
Vaccinating young children against diseases is important for several reasons:
- Protecting individual health: Vaccination protects children from serious and potentially deadly diseases, such as measles, polio, and whooping cough. It also helps prevent the spread of these diseases to others who cannot receive vaccines, such as new-borns or people with weakened immune systems.
- Maintaining community immunity: When a large number of people in a community are vaccinated, it creates herd immunity, making it difficult for diseases to spread. Again, this helps protect those who cannot receive vaccines, such as people with weakened immune systems.
- Preventing outbreaks: Vaccination helps prevent outbreaks of diseases, which can have a significant impact on public health. Outbreaks can result in hospitalisations, deaths, and long-term health problems for those who become infected.
NHS vaccination schedule
The pre-school immunisations offered to children on the NHS will ensure that children have the best protection against serious childhood diseases as they grow up.
- Hib/MenC vaccine – given as a single jab containing vaccines against meningitis C (1st dose) and Hib (4th dose)
- MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) – given as a single jab
- PCV (pneumococcal) – 3rd dose
- MenB vaccine – 3rd dose
2-11 years (including children in reception and school years 1 to 7):
- Children’s flu vaccine (annual)
3 years and 4 months:
- MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) – 2nd dose
- 4-in-1 pre-school booster – given as a single jab containing vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough or pertussis, and polio.
Quick guide to vaccinations
- PCV or “pneumo jab” protects against pneumococcal infections, which can lead to pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis
- MenB protects against meningitis and sepsis
- Hib/MenC protects against haemophilus influenzae (a bacterium that can cause serious illnesses) and meningitis C
- MMR protects against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles)
- 4-in-1 boosts protection against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio
- Flu given as a nasal spray and protects your child against getting the flu
Encouraging parents and carers to vaccinate
Some parents have strong feelings regarding immunisation, particularly surrounding the controversy in recent years around the MMR vaccination and of course, more recently the COVID-19 vaccination (although not routinely offered in the UK for those under 5). Although it is important to support and respect parents’ wishes wherever possible, it is also the setting’s responsibility to safeguard the health of the children in your care by ensuring the vast majority are immunised.
This also applies to your colleagues! Encouraging parents to keep up to date with their children’s vaccinations can be a challenge, but there are several strategies that you can put in place to help:
- Provide clear and accurate information: Parents may have concerns or misconceptions about vaccines. Providing clear, accurate, and culturally appropriate information can help dispel myths and build trust.
- Build relationships: Building relationships with parents is key to gaining their trust and support. By showing genuine concern for their children’s well-being and listening to their concerns, you can build a strong relationship with families.
- Address cultural beliefs: Different cultures may have different beliefs about vaccines. Understanding these beliefs and addressing them respectfully can help build trust and encourage vaccine uptake.
- Use interpreters and translators: If you have children who speak English as an additional language, then their parents may have limited English proficiency. Providing an interpreter or translator can help ensure that they receive accurate information about vaccines.
By implementing these steps, you can help reduce the spread of infections and create a healthy and safe environment for children in your early years setting.