No evidence to suggest uptick in disinfecting surfaces is bad for kids' immune systems, expert says

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Health experts are reassuring parents that disinfecting surfaces, while not the most effective way of preventing COVID-19 infection, is not necessarily doing long-term harm to children's developing immune systems.

Dr. Michael Steiner, Pediatrician in Chief for UNC Children's has seen many of his young patients be asymptomatic carriers of the virus that has now killed more than 8,000 North Carolinians, but he's also seen those who have severe reactions from infection.

"It does run the gamut from that, all the way up to children that have respiratory failure and need to be on ventilators," he said.

As parents rushed to protect their children and loved ones at the beginning of the pandemic, Steiner said early research prompted many to do more disinfecting than they would normally.

Now, however, as experts have learned more about how the virus is transmitted, they urge everyone to follow the core interventions that have been proven to work: mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing.

"We still think it's reasonable to clean surfaces if a lot of people have been touching it, but that's not the major way that we've seen COVID transmission," said Steiner.

SEE ALSO: Disinfecting surfaces to prevent COVID-19 may be overkill, expert says
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Constantly disinfecting doorknobs and other everyday surfaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may be overkill, according to infectious disease experts.

But is all that cleaning and disinfecting impairing children's immune systems? Steiner said, there's no evidence to support that.

"Washing your hands appropriately, whether with hand sanitizer or soap and water for an appropriate amount of time, we think, maintains health," said Steiner. "At the far extreme the other way, if we all lived in bubbles and never got exposed to any bacteria or viruses or any other infectious agents or agents that help stimulate our immune system, that also wouldn't optimize health."

Steiner used the example of infants in congregate care settings such as daycare, saying they tend to have 7-11 upper respiratory tract infections in that first year they're around other children.

"Those children tend to miss a little bit less school in kindergarten than kids who were never in preschool and were never exposed to those illnesses," he said. "On the other hand, children can get very sick from exposure. So we are not at all recommending that parents go out and expose their children to different illnesses just to build immunity."

Bottom line, Steiner said experts don't know the long-term effects of disinfecting, but they do know the results of exposing children to COVID-19.

Dr. Deverick J. Anderson, Director of the Duke Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention, echoed the sentiment in this statement to ABC11:

"Like most things, there are potential positives and negatives for our actions. For the time being, I continue to (strongly) advise ongoing diligent hand washing, hand disinfection, and surface disinfection. The prevention value in the current pandemic environment far outweighs any potential or theoretical harm to immune systems from frequent hand washing or surface disinfection. That said, I would advise against the use of antibacterial soaps. Regular soap or alcohol are sufficient and, to date, are not felt to cause any long term effects that I am aware of."
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