Straight talk from a family doctor
It’s not always easy adjusting to a life in a new country, and parents are right to have many questions when it comes to health and living in a new place. This month, American Marie Shieh, a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital and the BJU Shunyi Clinic, answers beijingkids readers’ questions about staying healthy in Beijing.
beijingkids: How will the air affect children? Especially children under 2 years of age?
Dr. Shieh: There was a study on kids aged 5 to 18 in the United States. They tested children who grew up in Los Angeles, a polluted area, against kids who grew up in cleaner air. The results showed that the children in Los Angeles had a slightly lower lung function, but that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean they can’t run or do sports any better or worse than other kids. As for living here for a long time, we’re not sure how that translates for children. We don’t have any research on that yet.
beijingkids: How can parents ensure children are getting enough fluoride?
Dr. Shieh: This question actually sparks a debate. Dentists at BJU will put a sealant on most children ages 3-6; the sealant, made of clear or shaded plastic, flows onto the grooves of teeth and hardens to protect teeth from cavities. This sealant is used because we don’t know how much fluoride children are getting otherwise. If children are more susceptible to cavities, they should get it around age 3.
Most expats drink bottled water so they probably aren’t getting enough fluoride, but if you drink boiled tap water, you might be taking in too much fluoride. As for oral fluoride, it isn’t legal in China, but children can also get fluoride from toothpaste.
beijingkids: What vaccinations are unique to living in Asia?
Dr. Shieh: All babies should get vaccinated for Hepatitis B when born. They should also get vaccinated for Hepatitis A, a food- and water-born viral infection; the vaccine is administered to all kids in the US, and we recommend that for children and adults in China.
We recommend getting vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne viral disease that usually occurs between May and the end of September (symptoms for the virus are fever and headache). It is usually seen in rural areas, and one in 300 cases develops into a bad brain infection for which there is no cure. If you live in Shunyi, a rural area, you should be vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis. The vaccination is very safe, and it has great benefits. Typhoid vaccinations are recommended for travel for the south of China and south Asia. Other normal vaccines for children are tetanus and diphtheria.
beijingkids: Are there any foods or herbs used in China that children shouldn’t have?
Dr. Shieh: Below 1 year of age, honey and cow’s milk aren’t safe. I wouldn’t advise giving any herbs to babies or children without first consulting a doctor. As for food in China, we think after the age of 1, kids can eat everything, as long as it’s a diet high in vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
There’s nothing wrong with Chinese food; in fact families here often have a healthy diet, especially in the countryside. Although Chinese food might seem greasy, they use vegetable oil, which is better than Crisco or the beef oil they use for French fries at fast food places back home in the US. In fact, when people get their blood drawn here, their cholesterol is often lower compared to when they are eating food in America.
beijingkids: When does a case of food poisoning warrant a visit to the doctor?
Dr. Shieh: Diarrhea and vomiting cases among expats isn’t uncommon, but if you can drink enough fluid and hydrate yourself, you can get better on your own. See a doctor if you can’t hold down any fluids, if it just goes right through your body, or if you have a fever for more than a few days and are feeling very sick.
Thanks to readers Sarah Chandler and Esther Yang for their questions, and thanks to Dr. Nathanael Goldman, Dr. Chung-ming Tse and Dr. Vivian Nazari of United Family Hospitals and Clinic, Beijing and Shunyi.