Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease Is on the Rise & Your Child Might Be at Risk

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If there were a contagious disease going around your kid's school, you'd want to know about it, right? In fact, you might even assume that it's the school's responsibility to tell you. But as a recent incident in Florida proved, that might not be the case: Two elementary school students in Florida caught hand, foot, and mouth disease after school officials failed to warn parents that the virus was going around -- and now parents everywhere are wondering if the same thing could happen to them, especially because cases of this common childhood illness are on the rise.

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Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) is generally not serious and typically affects children ages 5 and under, but adults are also at risk, says Ian Branam, health communication specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who spoke with CafeMom.

"It usually starts with a fever, reduced appetite, sore throat, and a feeling of being unwell," Branam told us. "One or two days after the fever starts, painful sores can develop in the mouth." 

These sores start out as small red spots that blister and can turn into ulcers; a rash (which also starts out as small red spots that can turn into blisters) sometimes appears over one or two days on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet (the knees, elbows, buttocks, and genital area might break out, too).

Rare but possible complications include viral meningitis, encephalitis, and (very rarely) polio-like paralysis.

Some people exhibit no symptoms at all -- but can still spread the disease to others, Branam said. And HFMD is spread very easily, through an infected person's saliva, nose secretions, blister fluid, and feces (gross!).

There's currently no vaccine for the illness, so hygiene is key, Branam said. The best ways to avoid being infected are by washing hands often with soap and water, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and items like toys, and avoiding close contact and sharing utensils with infected individuals.

Given how crucial prevention and awareness are in stopping the spread of HFMD, you'd think that schools would give parents a heads-up if any students came down with the illness, but parents at Lakeview Elementary School in Sarasota say they didn't receive any warning -- even though the school's health room sent an email to Lakeview staff.

Why? According to Sarasota County Schools' communication specialist Scott Ferguson, the school technically isn't required to alert parents about this kind of thing.

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"We usually don't inform parents about common illnesses that run their course in a few days, as this disease generally does," he told WTSP, explaining that they work with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County to determine if a given outbreak warrants communication with parents. He adds:

When we do contact parents about symptoms appearing in relatively large numbers at their child's school, we may ask them to take certain precautions, including keeping their children at home if they are exhibiting certain symptoms.

Okay, but wouldn't a good way to prevent symptoms from showing up in large numbers be to contain those initial few cases? Unfortunately, this line of thinking isn't unique to this particular school district. Many states don't require schools to let parents know about contagious diseases at schools (though they do ask them to notify local and/or state public health agencies). 

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But even if schools don't technically have to tell parents about a potentially nasty germ making the rounds through classrooms, wouldn't they want to? Wouldn't they want to try to stop outbreaks from spreading?

Some schools do make this choice, thankfully. At least once a year I get an email from at least one of my children's schools about HFMD (I've even gotten a couple about strep throat and the flu, not to mention dozens about lice).

One would think it would be in a school's best interest to keep parents in the loop when it comes to their children's health. When kids are sick, attendance goes down and academic progress is interrupted (plus, teachers get sick, too). I understand not wanting to incite widespread panic, but dealing with a bunch of parents who are angry their kids got sick can't be much better. 

Naturally, we should all be encouraging our kids to wash their hands frequently anyway, but if we got an alert about HFMD in school we'd probably go out of our way to remind them -- and we'd also be more likely to recognize symptoms earlier, which means we'd be more likely to take them to the doctor at the first sign of illness (instead of writing off initial symptoms as a minor cold and sending them to class). 

Plus, it just seems like common courtesy for schools to make sure parents are informed. And that courtesy can go both ways: Both of my kids' current schools, for example, ask that parents give a list of symptoms to the nurse's office when their kids are out sick. The goal is to keep as many kids as healthy as possible -- and that's in everybody's best interest.

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