Educating Youth on Public Health and Infectious Diseases

March 31, 2021

Providing information about infectious agents and prevention measures early in life can empower young students to keep themselves and others safe while instilling healthy, lifelong habits. We discuss activities to teach students about infectious diseases and how you can try different strategies to keep them engaged. These strategies should be considered an outline, as any lesson needs to observe state education guidelines and required lesson plans. Educators may need to try and find ways to integrate these topics into standard curriculum.

Consider the Audience Before Implementing Lessons

Lessons should consider the target audience and focus on achieving the greatest impact for different age groups. For example, elementary students should learn about hand hygiene, keeping their hands away from their mouths and how to properly social distance to reduce the risk of exposure. Invent games to help them remember to integrate disease prevention into daily routines. Use foamy soap that creates bubbles, or hand sanitizer that smells good. For hand washing, practice rhymes to help students remember the steps, or teach fun songs to keep time. If in a public space, see who can go the longest without touching their face.

Students in junior high or high school can go beyond prevention measures by exploring the link between personal behavior and health. Introduce the basics of public health and epidemiology. Discuss how viruses, bacteria and other pathogens can cause disease. Include topics on “One Health” and how animal, human and environmental health are connected.

Embed Lessons With Real-Life Connections

Tying lessons to real-life situations is one of the best ways for students to see how public health is relevant and create a concrete understanding of abstract concepts. To add real-life meaning to lessons, consider strategies like the following:

  • Use the surrounding environment. Ask students to think about the things around them (drinking water, desks, shoes, etc.) and how they could affect their health or become vectors for transmission. When engaging younger students, visual demonstrations are helpful. Use glitter to show how easily bacteria can spread in a classroom.
  • Discuss simplified case studies or scenarios to show examples of infectious diseases. For older students, consider engaging in table-top exercises where they can be the experts. Present an outbreak and allow them to think about how they would respond or what could have been done to prevent the spread.
  • Review public health data. Health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) routinely track outbreaks and report surveillance data on infectious diseases. If teaching topics on epidemiology, use real data to explain epidemiological curves and case counts.
  • Invite guest speakers who are subject matter experts. For example, doctors, epidemiologists or laboratorians can show students how these topics matter and how they can be applied to real-life situations.

Use Technology and Interactive Tools

At a certain age, it can be challenging to keep students engaged in structured classroom settings. They may be more interested in their phones or video games. Fortunately, information about public health does not always have to come from a textbook. The International Journal of Public Health has listed several websites where you can find fun and creative ways to teach public health. Below are a few examples:

Video and Computer Games

  • Pandemic is a video game version of the pandemic board game. Players work together as a team to try and prevent an outbreak from spreading across the globe. You travel around the world to find a treatment and if you can cure all 4 diseases, you win.
  • Plague Inc. is a video game where you play as the infectious agent. Once patient zero is infected, the goal is to try and spread the pathogen across the globe by evolving and adapting to public health control measures. A new expansion, Plague Inc.: The Cure, takes the opposite side. The player must determine how to implement different public health strategies to prevent a pandemic.
  • Solve the Outbreak is a computer game available from the CDC. Players are given clues and data about an outbreak with the goal of determining the best solution to the scenario. During the game, players are presented with terms and other information to learn more about public health and epidemiology.
  • Food Detectives Fight BAC! is an interactive way to teach students about foodborne illnesses. The game contains several online modules that include songs and videos, step-by-step walk-throughs and arcade-style games to kill bacteria. Players can print off certificates at the end.

Comic Books

  • The Junior Disease Detectives is a graphic novel created by the CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and 4-H. The novel tells us a story of how a group of young 4-H members, with the help of public health and animal health experts, determine that their friend became sick after attending a state agricultural fair.
  • No Ordinary Flu is a comic book from the Seattle and King County, Wash. Department of Public Health. The story describes one family’s experience with the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

While incorporating technology can be helpful in increasing student engagement, it is important to recognize that a lack of access to these types of resources can expand educational inequities. Tools like video games or digital comics should be used to enhance core lessons when possible, not replace them.

The value of teaching students about public health and infectious disease extends beyond the classroom. Students can begin to understand their impact on the community, develop reasoning skills and understand important public health policies such as immunizations. As they learn more about these topics, students may also be inspired to pursue STEM-related careers. As the world continues to battle emerging and re-emerging pathogens, we will need to continue to develop creative strategies to ensure students have the opportunity to live healthy lifestyles.

Author: Victoria Stone, Ph.D.

Victoria Stone, Ph.D.
Victoria Stone currently works in the field of public health.