With anthrax outbreaks dominating news reports and daily discussions, your child may be struggling to understand chilling new technical terms and concepts. Child consulted Dr. Fred Henretig, pediatric emergency room physician and toxicologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, for advice on tackling kids' bioterrorism questions.
As a general rule, Dr. Henretig says the most effective and soothing way to talk to your child is with honesty -- even if that means admitting you don't know the answer -- and by keeping responses short and simple.
Q: What is bioterrorism?
A: It's a way that very bad people try to make someone sick by spreading germs.
Q: Who is responsible for the bioterrorism?
A: We don't know yet, but there are very few people in the world who would do something like this. They are people who are angry about things they can't control so they do bad things to others.
Q: What is anthrax?
A: Anthrax is a serious infection like a bad cold or flu that makes it hard for someone to breathe. But most people who get the anthrax germs can take medicine so they don't become sick.
Q: What is smallpox?
A: Smallpox is another serious disease that starts like a cold or flu and then turns into a skin rash with blisters.
Q: How can I get anthrax or smallpox?
A: It's almost impossible for you to get these diseases. No child has gotten sick from them at home or school. So far, only one child has come down with anthrax out of all the kids in America. This child caught the germs when he was visiting his mom's workplace -- and even that is very unusual.
To get anthrax or smallpox you have to be near the germs and breathe them in or get them on your skin. Some diseases are contagious -- meaning you get them from someone else who has them -- but so far, the only disease that people have gotten sick from is anthrax, which isn't contagious.
Q: How do I know if I have anthrax?
A: You would become sicker than with a normal cold or flu -- or you might get a bad rash -- but we (Mom or Dad) would be able to see that you weren't getting better the way you should. We would bring you to a doctor who could take care of you right away.
Q: If I get it, will I die?
A: Anything is possible, but remember that children occasionally die from car or bike accidents. You're much less likely to have a serious problem from anthrax than from other things that happen every day.
If you did get anthrax or smallpox, we would take you to the doctor immediately and do everything we could to make you better right away.
Q: Will Mom or Dad get it?
A: Only a few people in the United States have actually gotten sick from this problem, so it's very unlikely that we (Mom or Dad) will get it. But if we did, doctors can help us just the same as they can help you.
Q: Am I safe?
A: Absolutely, you're just as safe as always. Only one child in the whole country has gotten sick so far, and he has been taking medicine and is doing fine. Compared to the other problems that people can have, this is nothing to worry about.
For kids who aren't asking any questions about bioterrorism, consider broaching the topic yourself if you think your child is wondering about it. "When you can get them to talk about it, it's better," Henretig explains. This way, you can allay the fears they may be reluctant to raise on their own. Start by asking them if they've heard about bioterrorism or anthrax and explain how slim the chances are that they'll contract it.