Hamilton’s public health unit is hoping to add a few more essentials to parents back to school list, this week.
Kids may have tangibles like backpacks, tablets and pens ready to go, but the city’s Medical Officer of Health suggests adding a few intangibles that could add to your child’s performance and health during the school year.
Dr. Elizabeth Richardson says mental health, vaping, vaccinations, as well as visual and oral health, may not be top of mind for many parents getting kids ready for the school year, but recent stats show they all could have an effect on a student’s overall development.
Mental Health and Addictions
A recent CAMH study on the well-being of Ontario students discovered that 34 per cent of high-school attendees indicated a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress with 14 per cent having seriously contemplated suicide in 2015.
A city study, also in 2015, validated that issue in Hamilton, reporting 227 visits to an emergency department for self-harm for students aged four to 18 equating to an average rate of 2.5 visits per 1000 students. There were nearly five self-harm cases per week in Hamilton that year, with the rates higher among females at about 4.3 per 1,000 compared to male students.
The city says many of those mental behavioral disorders were reportedly caused by prescription and illicit drugs, particularly opioids, and stimulants.
Richardson says although talking drugs and alcohol with one’s kids can be difficult and potentially dramatic, it’s an important dialogue to have.
“It’s important to sit down and listen to your kids and hear what they’re hearing hear their perspective and hear their opinions,” said Richardson referring to the city numbers.
“About 60 per cent of kids have used alcohol in the past year in grades 9 to 12, but as well 30 per cent of kids in grades 9 to 12 use cannabis. Surprisingly, data showed an alarming 18 per cent of kids have driven in a car with somebody considered impaired.”
Richardson suggests sticking to the facts when having the conversation and advises against using “cool” language like “pass out” or “overdose.”
“We’re trying to communicate things like — reduce your use and don’t use until later in life,” Richardson said, “We know kids brains are developing right into their 20s and it’s not just a thing that happens at younger ages, so delaying use of both alcohol and cannabis is really important.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton Health Sciences will be reaching out to youth and parents about the potential dangers of vaping after a report from the U.S. based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine using data from a number of public health departments showed a definitive connection between e-cigarettes and the increased usage of traditional cigarettes.
The study suggested that about one in five kids who vape will go on to have to use cigarettes while a recent University of Waterloo study said e-cigarette use was most prevalent among younger age groups.
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“We know that smokers smoke and that inhaling products that come from things like glycerol or inhaling things that are addictive like nicotine can be harmful to our health, so we’re going to be working with the school boards this year on developing more in terms of curriculum around vaping, what it means, and more in terms of a program to curb vaping at school,” said Richardson.
The city’s health unit is also pushing Hamilton’s Active & Sustainable School Travel (ASST) program which hopes to reduce commuter traffic and draw 60 per cent of students into walking or cycling, even skateboarding, every day to and from school by 2031.
“Walking just a mile to school and home actually adds up to being about two-thirds of the daily physical activity that a child needs every single day,” said Richardson referring to Participations guidelines for children and youth.
“We actually have 63 per cent of our schools in Hamilton that have travel plans and we want to get that number up. We’re hoping to get to 75 percent of schools by the end of this (school) year and a further 100 percent by 2021.”
Vaccinations and Immunization Compliance
During the 2018-2019 school year, approximately 16,000 students had to be notified by Hamilton Public Health Services that they did not have up-to-date vaccination records on file with public health.
Richardson said it was either because a student had not received all required vaccines or the student’s vaccine record was not reported to public health by the parent and/or guardian.
“It’s actually a requirement by law,” says Richardson, “The immunizations school pupils act says that every kid be immunized or have on record a reason why they might be exempt from having vaccines.”
Every year public health reviews student vaccine records to ensure the health of the community and the city is responsible for maintaining and assessing vaccine records for over 70,000 students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools.
Public Health Services refers to the practice as “herd immunity” which is to not only used to prevent diseases, like measles and the mumps, for an individual but to protect vulnerable people who cannot be immunized for medical reasons.
Failing to provide missing information can result in suspension from school for up to 20 days.
Between 2018 and 2019, public health suspended around 3,400 students from actually attending class, however, a majority of them did go back within’ the week of their suspension according to Richardson.
“There are all sorts of opportunities to get vaccinated whether it’s through your family doctor you can also come to public health services clinics. We actually do it, if you end up in that situation.”
Nurses from public health are expected to visit schools to offer free vaccinations for students in grade 7, this coming year. Meningitis, HPV, and Hepatitis B vaccines will be earmarked for those students not immunized.
According to numbers from the Ontario Association of Optometrists 80 per cent of a child’s learning in a classroom occurs through their eyes and that an estimated 43 per cent of children with vision problems can pass a simple eye screening.
The association also estimates that about 5,000 children every year have trouble learning to read because they need glasses and only about 10 per cent of Ontario children actually go through a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist before the age of four.
Public Health Services recommends having a child’s eyes tested between the ages of two to five then every year after that up until the age of 19. The province pays for those exams up to the age of 19 with an Ontario Health Card.
Those in need can apply for free eye care and glasses from city and provincial programs, according to Richardson.
“We have available for kids that are in J.K. (junior kindergarten) a program called Eye See…Eye Learn which provides free glasses, that first pair of glasses to any child in JK who needs them.”
The city also offers the programs through its website.
Another free service the city provides for younger students is oral health screening and treatment.
Last year, public health services screened 13,704 students in kindergarten and grade 2 at several public schools in the city and about 1,190 students required urgent dental care.
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During the 2018-2019 school year, health sciences will once again make their way out to JK, SK and Grade 2 to execute screenings as well as give lessons on what foods could promote tooth decay.
“What we’re looking for is to see if there are any signs of serious dental issues,” Richardson says, “We’re looking for severe decay, we’re looking for the trauma that may have happened with broken teeth and we’re looking for severe infections.”
The city does offer free dental for children and low-income residents without insurance at its clinic in downtown Hamilton on King Street. X-rays, dental fillings, uncomplicated tooth extractions, and antibiotics are a number of services available.
“Ontario does have a free dental care program for kids. It’s called ‘Healthy Smiles Ontario’ and it provides free dental care for kids up to 18 years of age, provided here in our public health dental clinics or through your community dentist,” Richardson says.
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