Junkfood Science: The hidden learning opportunity

June 18, 2008

The hidden learning opportunity

A fourth grader missed her last day of school after being suspended because she shared a lip balm used for fever blisters with two classmates. The school has a no tolerance policy when it comes to drugs in school.

Certainly, sharing cold sore balm isn’t advisable, as it can spread the infection, but that wasn’t the missed educational opportunity that this incident might have provided. As you read the news story, see if you can figure out what it might have been:

Oregon City student suspended for sharing lip cream

An Oregon City fourth grader missed her last day of school Friday because she shared a lip cream with two classmates... it all began the day before school got out when students were cleaning out their desks. She found a medicated, over the counter, lip cream called “abreva” in her desk. It’s a cold sore medication and can numb up an area. A classmate asked her what it was and wanted Madison to share. She did and the classmate put some on her lips then passed it to a friend. Madison says a short time later the two classmates didn’t feel well and told the teacher.

When the teacher investigated, Madison and the classmates ended up in the principal’s office. All three were suspended and missed the last day of class. “I was really sad,” she said. “I was crying my eyes out when it happened."

District Superintendent Roger Rada defends the move. "We're there to protect the kids,” said Rada... Madison’s parents understand the rationale behind the policy. They just feel the school and district went way overboard in punishing the girls... “For the school to suspend her on the last day of school, which happens to be the funnest day of school, I thought was taking it out of control,” said [her mother].

What a sad story. Your empathy goes out to this little girl.

There are several ways this story might become a discussion point and most have run with the “protecting kids has run amuck angle.” But there’s one that hasn’t been brought up yet:

This episode illustrated how fear of the unknown can affect us.

The two little girls became so afraid of the unknown substance they'd put on their lips, that the nocebo effect led them to believe it was actually making them sick.

The possible adverse effects of this topical ointment actually includes minor things like redness, dry skin and itching, not systemic illnesses. The overreaction of the school officials may have added to the sobbing and hysteria of the event and underscored the perception of danger in the ointment for the little girls. Nocebo effects are surprisingly common, especially seen among impressionable young people. The physical effects of fear, and things we believe might harm us, have been abundantly documented in the medical literature and described in history for more than 600 years. Had the balm been shared among a group of girls in the bathroom like girls so often try on each other’s make-up, there might have been more than just a few to suddenly come down with this mysterious sickness.

Dr. Timothy Jones, M.D. with the Tennessee Department of Health in Nashville provided professionals with a helpful overview for ways to respond to cases of collective fears to provide factual information and reinforce reality to lessen anxiety and gives reassurance. There’s also a consumer-friendly handout for families.

Understanding how fears of invisible things that aren't understood can hurt young people and how to help protect them has never been more important, especially today. Kids are surrounded by threats of death and impending disease from unseen dangers in everything — from their foods, air, water, toys, baby bottles, computer screens to phones. And media brings a steady stream of extreme, scary anecdotes.

Hat tip: Nobody’s Business

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