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Back-to-school Period Means More Respiratory Risk For Children

With Omicron in our communities, and all of New Zealand under red traffic light settings, schools are preparing to welcome back our tamariki with extra health and safety measures in place. These include vaccination, mask wearing from Year 4 upwards, physical distancing, and capacity limits for some school events.

However, even with these restrictions in place, it can be a time of stress and uncertainty for families whose children have respiratory conditions. The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation New Zealand (ARFNZ) says the back-to-school period is always a vulnerable time for the one in seven Kiwi children living with asthma.

"The return-to-school period increases the risk of respiratory hospitalisation for children," says ARFNZ Chief Executive Letitia Harding. "The ‘back-to-school effect’ is greater than the ‘winter effect’ when it comes to children’s respiratory disease. This is an important issue to address, and even more so with Omicron now in our communities."

ARFNZ's recent report, The Impact of Respiratory Disease in New Zealand: 2020 Update, found that in weeks 3 and 4 of term 1 in 2020, hospitalisations for respiratory disease increased, peaking in week 3 at three times the risk of the first day of term.

International studies have shown that a variety of factors are associated with the increase, including a change of environment and exposure to different allergens, changes in emotions such as stress or anxiety, and exposure to more viruses from being around more people.

"Investing funding into educating children about asthma is a huge focus for us," says Letitia. "Our Sailor the Pufferfish live musical shows, in te reo Māori and English, are more vital than ever to teach children and teachers about asthma, and what to do in an asthma emergency."

Recently, ARFNZ launched the Sailor Digital Classroom, an interactive digital course which ensures that all primary school children in New Zealand can get asthma-educated, no matter where they are and no matter what COVID-19 restrictions are in place. The Foundation is also hoping to secure funding for a te reo Māori digital version for Kura across Aotearoa.

To keep their children safe through the return-to-school period, parents and caregivers of children with asthma should ensure that their child has an Asthma Action Plan, which is shared with their school and their teacher.

"Make sure your child is taking their preventer medication as prescribed and bringing their reliever inhaler to school, and check that it’s not empty or out of date," says ARFNZ Research and Education Manager Joanna Turner. "You should also let your child know what their asthma triggers are, so they can do their best to avoid them. Getting the COVID and flu vaccines and practising good hand hygiene are also important to prevent the spread of germs."

"We know this is a worrying time for some families," says ARFNZ Medical Director Dr James Fingleton. "The good news is that many of the measures being put into place to protect against the Omicron variant will also help protect against other respiratory infections. Making sure that children with asthma take their preventer medication regularly and have an up- to- date asthma plan will also help to minimise the risk."

A free, printable back-to-school checklist is also available to download from the Foundation’s website, visit:

If your school is interested in hosting a Sailor the Pufferfish show, please contact

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