Is quarantining children a sensible precaution amid coronavirus?

Doug Hendrie

29/01/2020 1:47:19 PM

Despite conflicting advice from authorities, health experts say keeping China-linked children home from school is reasonable.

A bunch of school children.
New South Wales has requested parents keep potentially affected children at home.

State and federal governments are at odds over whether to keep schoolchildren at home if they have recently returned from China.
But health experts have described the move as a ‘reasonable precaution’ as concerns grow around new research suggesting the coronavirus can be spread while asymptomatic.
New South Wales has requested parents keep potentially affected children – ie if they have been in China within the past 14 days – at home to avoid spreading the new virus. State Health Minister Brad Hazzard described it as a ‘precautionary decision’.
The NSW move reportedly came after schools themselves expressed concern about potential exposure from children returning from China.
But the Federal Government has called for children to be able to attend school unless they are showing symptoms or are a confirmed case.
Education Minister Dan Tehan told the ABC that all schools should ‘follow the advice of the [Federal] health department’.
The Victorian and South Australian governments have issued similar advice, while some private schools have acted to separate recently returned students from others.
Bond University Professor of Evidence-Based Practice Paul Glasziou told newsGP that quarantining is reasonable, given evidence that school holiday periods are associated with major drops in flu incidence.
A recent F1000Research paper co-authored by Professor Glasziou found that closing schools or extending holiday periods could be an ‘emergency option’ for state governments in dealing with bad flu seasons.
‘As others have found, [school closure] clearly reduces transmission,’ he said.  
The US Centers for Disease Control lists strategies for schools to tackle the flu, such as staying home when sick, encouraging hand hygiene and regular cleaning, which Professor Glasziou said could be applicable for this outbreak.
‘An additional strategy is to consider face masks, which, with hand hygiene, appear to substantially reduce transmission. All these strategies would need to be triggered by health departments to schools at an appropriate point in an epidemic or pandemic,’ Professor Glasziou and his co-authors state.
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon has also backed the precautionary approach in an interview with The Today Show.
‘If we take a low-risk approach [and say] if a child is potentially at risk of the virus, perhaps holding them back for two weeks is not a huge imposition,’ he said.
‘It can be a huge imposition on parents who are trying to go out and work and live, but I think it would be better for schools if they did hold them back.’
Dr Nespolon said part of the confusion comes from the fact that there are no ‘absolute facts’ about the new virus.  
‘[Facts] are only going to develop over time,’ he said.
‘It’s difficult for parents to hear one state has decided to effectively quarantine high-risk children away from others and another major state has decided not to do that.’
Dr Nespolon has also called on the Federal Government to consider temporarily stopping flights from China.
‘From a purely medical point of view, stopping the flights would then stop the risk of those patients coming out of infected areas,’ he told 9News.
China has already banned flights leaving the stricken city of Wuhan.
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