Schools Must Take Advantage of the ‘Social Vaccine’ They Provide

A WISH research report due to be released next month has recognized schools as ‘engines’ of health promotion with an important role to play in influencing the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. Education is often referred to as a ‘social vaccine’ for a range of health conditions, according to the report, and consensus is growing that child health should be included in its core mission.

The full research report, titled Building Healthy Societies: A Framework For Integrating Health and Health Promotion Into Education, will be released and discussed in depth at WISH 2020. The fifth biennial conference is being held virtually from November 15-19, and will focus on 10 research themes including the ‘The Role of Schools in Child Health’.

The report makes the case for integrating health and health promotion activities into education systems. With children spending many of their waking hours in classrooms, the prolonged contact gives schools a unique opportunity and responsibility to educate, but also prepare children to be productive members of society – far-reaching benefits beyond gains in health. The school environment offers several opportunities for action. Crucially, identifying conditions such as autism, diabetes, obesity, and mental illness can trigger targeted early interventions. Worldwide – especially in low-income countries – schools are often platforms to deliver health interventions that range from school nutrition to deworming, with direct and lasting health benefits.

The expert research group tackling this subject at WISH 2020 is chaired by a pioneer in adolescent health, Prof. Russell Viner, who has led the development of adolescent health clinical approaches in the UK. As one of the founders of the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health, his work identified the expansion of secondary education as the key global lever to improve young people’s health.

Russell Viner, chair of the WISH 2020 Role of Schools in Child and Adolescent Health forum

Referring to the global school closures in response to COVID-19, Prof. Russell Viner, said: “We have over a billion children and young people out of schools globally. This is the largest cessation of education due to closure of schools that has ever happened, and potentially for the longest period. What it has done is to highlight the links between education and health in the most extraordinary ways.

“In the first sense, we are using schools as a health intervention, and closing schools as part of the control of this pandemic. But secondly, we can also see the collateral damage this is doing to children’s and young people’s health. It reveals the role that the education system has in health and these inextricable links between the two of them.”

The report discusses the worrisome effects of school closures that may include anxiety, depression, and mental health stress, cutting off access to school-provided nutrition and other health services and increasing the threat of maltreatment and unprotected exposure to the digital environment, noting that debate is ongoing on the best path to reopening schools.

The recommendations of the report are far-reaching and call for collaboration in bridging the gap between the health and education sectors and the creation of a ‘common language’ framework to enable understanding across different policy domains.

‘The Role of Schools in Child Health’ forum at WISH 2020 will be an important opportunity to consider case studies from around the world and identify comprehensive ways to take advantage of the “social vaccine” that schools can provide.

WISH 2020 will have a uniquely interactive format under the theme ‘One World Our Health’, to emphasize that WISH’s vision to create a healthier world through global collaboration is now more vital than ever.