Children's health is more vulnerable than ever. Frequent health scares involving contaminated food, disease outbreaks and poor personal hygiene are creating a high-risk environment, according to reports and warnings released by the government. On December 27, the Centre for Disease Protection at the Hong Kong Department of Health issued a warning about norovirus [a strain of gastroenteritis, or stomach flu] outbreaks following a steep rise in cases in Hong Kong and Japan. 'Hong Kong is now experiencing its winter peak for norovirus infections. Norovirus is highly contagious as the sufferer would vomit in an 'explosive' fashion, spraying vomitus in all directions,' said Lo Wing-lok, an expert on infectious diseases. 'People who come into contact with even tiny droplets will get infected. With clusters of students staying close together, schools are high-risk places.' Noroviral disease aside, students and teachers also need to be on the lookout for symptoms of other infectious diseases that can affect young children. 'In November, more than 2,000 cases of chickenpox were reported in Hong Kong. If an infected student takes off his sweater in the classroom, skin flakes carrying the airborne disease might come off and get other students infected. Both parents and teachers should be on the alert for signs of the illness. If children show any symptoms like fever or skin rash, don't let them go to school,' said Dr Lo. While new strains of viruses threaten teenagers' health, students' poor hygiene practices also expose them to risk. And, with memories of the 2003 Sars threat fading away, youngsters' awareness of health and hygiene has slipped. 'Some students share their food. If one of them is sick, all the others easily get infected,' said Lui Ki-cheung, principal of Leung Sing Tak College. A survey conducted by the Department of Health also raised alarm about poor personal hygiene among Hong Kong people. From December 2005 to January 2006, the department interviewed 3,220 people aged 12 or above on their hygiene habits. Of the respondents, 35 per cent said they would not take the trouble to use serving chopsticks in group dinners or luncheons. Another 30 per cent admitted they never washed their hands after touching public installations, and 10 per cent said they would not wash their hands after coughing and sneezing. For most students, convenience always takes precedence over hygiene and cleanliness. 'Using serving chopsticks is too troublesome. Sometimes, my schoolmates and I go to yum cha for lunch. We order many dim sum dishes. If we use serving chopsticks for each dish, there would be too many on the table,' said Yau Hoi-yin, a Form Five student from Tsuen Wan Government Secondary School. 'Even when public utensils are used, I mix them up with my own.' Low health awareness among students worries teachers and principals. 'With the recent virus outbreaks, students should be more alert. If they fall ill, their studies will be affected,' said Mr Lui. 'When I was young, I seldom visited the doctor. Today's youngsters seek medical care much more often. 'Sleep deprivation is also quite common among students. Many stay up late playing computer games and watching football matches.' Mr Lui said students fall ill easily when they do not get enough sleep.