This Fall, as children head back to school, in addition to the academic and social issues that our children must face, there is also the ever-present worry over the coming flu season, especially in light of recent concern over swine flu. Caused by the influenza virus H1N1, swine flu’s grim forecast include infecting up half of the country’s population while hospitalizing upwards of 1.8 million people and causing as many as 90,000 deaths, double the number of a regular flu season.

While a vaccine is in the making, most of us are aware that they are not a guarantee against contracting the disease, and some experts postulate that the infections could peak before it even becomes available. So what’s a worried parent to do besides worry some more?

Well, for those of us who can remember what it was like to be a child, we should take heed of what our parents always told us and make sure our children wash their hands. It could very well be one of the best defenses against swine flu. Though it sounds simple enough, and may be perhaps something many of us simply take for granted, hand-washing has been one of the most effective public health measures in modern society. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that, “Hand-washing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection."

One of the most common routes of transmission of the influenza virus is through hand-to-face contact, and in some instances, is believed to be responsible for up to one third of infections. Germs are picked up by touching surfaces where the virus resides (and can survive for hours) and then transferred to the body by way of contact with breaks in the skin or the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth.

Proper hygiene, in the form of hand-washing, has been shown to help reduce the risk of exposure, as was highlighted in a recent article in the New York Times. Whether it was in a hospital, college dorm, and even at home, making a conscious effort to clean hands with soap and water or a water-less hand sanitizer significantly reduced the incidence of various infections, though it was more effective in preventing gastrointestinal disorders than respiratory infections. The reason for this was believe to be the additional risk of transmission from coughing or sneezing.

Even still, with all of the support, it behooves us as parents to make sure that our children clean their hands before every meal and after extensive time spent in public places. When hand-washing is not available, use a hand sanitizer. It’s simple, economical, and cost-effective.

And if you’re still not convinced, consider a recent study out of England which found that up to 28% of British commuters had fecal contamination on their hands, and in one city, the number was as high as 57%. If that’s not reason enough to clean your hands, I don’t know what is.

Once your and your children's hands are clean, get your flu shots, and check out the Parent's Checklist: Tips to Prevent Swine Flu which includes additional tips like sneeze in your sleeve, not your hand!