A safe approach to summer camp

Safety and health policies should be checked by parents

Health & Fitness

June 24, 2005|By Pamela J. Gray | Pamela J. Gray,Special to the Sun

School's out, and, for many parents, it's time to send the kids off to summer camp.

About 10 million American children will head to camp in the coming weeks, according to the American Camp Association. Parents who are packing the swimsuits and hiking boots should also consider their child's health and safety.

Whether it's day camp or sleep-away camp, in-state or out-of-state, it's important for parents to know the facility's safety and emergency policies, and to take precautions to keep kids healthy while away from home.

With prescription drug use rising among Americans of all ages, for example, parents should inquire about camp procedures for storing and dispensing medicine.

"Campers should already be up-to-date on their childhood immunizations," says Dr. Trish Perl, associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and School of Public Health. Among this summer's recommended vaccines for campers is Menactra, a new meningitis vaccine approved in January by the Food and Drug Administration.

"If I had an adolescent going to a residential camp, I would definitely vaccinate them for meningitis," advises Dr. Timothy Doran, chairman of pediatrics at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Next month, for the third summer in a row, Charlotte Butler's son Travis, 14, will head off to Camp Ridgecrest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for two weeks. Travis is the third generation of his family to attend the camp.

"I've seen the camp in action and know they have a nursing staff that lives there during the summer," says Butler. "My own children have had some accidents, but I know that things were taken care of appropriately. Kids fall, arms get broken, they get stitches. I think it's all pretty normal where there are a lot of outdoor sports."

Particularly with residential camps, it's important to find out if there is a physician on site, says Doran.

Other questions to ask: How far is the camp from the nearest hospital? What emergency procedures are in place in case of accidents? Does the camp have basic resuscitation equipment and are personnel trained to use it?

Camps usually require parents to send detailed health forms months before camp begins. And for campers who take prescription medicine, the drugs must be in their original containers with original prescription labels, says Beth Hester, a nurse who volunteers for the Carroll County 4-H Camp in Westminster.

"Medicines are kept where other kids can't get ... them," says Hester. "Generally, at our camp, the staff even keeps the inhalers [used to treat asthma]. No child is any more than probably one minute away from getting to their inhaler or other medication."

In her 20 years of camp nursing, Hester says she has seen an increase in campers with prescription medications for asthma and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). And "we're seeing more kids with specialty-type health problems who used to go only to camps that would deal with those health issues. For example, we have diabetic children and other special-needs children at camp. We're seeing a small but significant rise in this population."

Camp check-in is usually where Hester talks to parents about their concerns. "Often it's the parents of a child new to the program," she says. "They just need that assurance that we can handle what they've been living with. We assure them that nurses are, indeed, at camp 24 / 7."

Mike Schneider, director of residential Camp Airy (for boys) in Thurmont and Camp Louise (for girls) in nearby Cascade, echoes Hester's comments.

"Camp is like running a small community, and we need to have access to as much information as possible about the children. When you have 450 children and a staff of 150, you have to maintain a very organized health center."

Each camp has two resident physicians and five nurses, says Schneider. Everyone is not on duty all the time, but the health center is always open.

"The physician or nurse always makes the call with emergencies," he adds, "and we do everything with the parents' knowledge. That's why we have home, work, cell and emergency contact numbers."

Many states, including Maryland, have camp certification regulations. Maryland enacted regulations in 1989. In addition to state certification, parents may want the assurance of camp accreditation by the nearly 100-year-old American Camp Association, which has accredited more than 2,400 camps.

"Accreditation by the ACA," explains Steve Eller, director of Beth Tfiloh Camps in Baltimore County, "is voluntary and goes a lot farther into suggesting and monitoring not just health and safety but all aspects of a camp operation. Particularly when it comes to sleep-away camps, you're talking about entrusting sometimes quite young kids to go off into the woods with people that you don't know. I think that's reason enough to make sure that there's a strong certification process."


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