What's your family's illness curse?

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I'm a firm believer that every family has their 'curse' : the illness that plagues them but seems to bypass other families.

Ours is gastro.

The first year we experienced full blown gastro, my eldest child was nine months old. He was not a vomit-y kind of baby so when he spewed his own body weight it was somewhat unexpected. Given he smiled afterwards, I didn't think too much of it. Maybe his tummy was full and he didn't need that extra feed?

Come midnight, we'd changed him seven times. Not long after, my own gut gurglings began. I sat in the shower with the water washing away a constant stream of vomit. It was a stomach workout like I'd never known. When the tsunami of nausea had passed, my body felt like a soggy chip. I could barely support my own weight, let alone lift a baby. Then it was my husband's turn. He chose to stay on the toilet. The entire night.

Now we have four children, the idea of gastro is close to my worst nightmare. When gastro hits the Orr household (usually every year at Easter), we go into lockdown. It spreads like wildfire, no matter how much hand washing and antibacterial everything we have in our house. Trying to catch vomit with a bucket from the top bunk at 3am is an extreme sport. One I can gladly do without competing in.

Strangely, I've met families who have never experienced the joys of gastro. NEVER? Who are these super beings?

Instead, their children have colds, runny noses or ear infections monthly. Just as they knock one screaming ear infection over, the next one comes barrelling through. Although babies and young children are more likely to get ear infections because they have narrower tubes connecting the middle ear to the throat, I can count on one hand the number of ear infections my children have suffered.

An obvious explanation is that certain bugs, like gastroenteritis and common colds, are highly contagious therefore very easily spread between siblings and family members.

But is there more to it? Cast iron constitutions, a powerful immunity, genetic makeup, dumb luck – what is it that makes some of us prone and some immune?

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Associate Professor Sharon Goldfeld, paediatrician at The Royal Children's Hospital's Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH), says it can be all of the above.

"There are complex factors at play when we talk about viral transfer, not simply one thing we can put our finger on. Infections spread based on a combination of coincidence, timing, how children and adults interact with their environment and their exposure to germs."

Meanwhile, Dr Brett Sutton, a Melbourne-based doctor with kids aged 11 months, 3 and 5, says, "the most likely factors contributing to families having a higher burden of common viral illnesses are kids' age (the younger the more) and daycare attendance. Children in daycare tend to have more infections than children in home care, although this tends to stabilise or even become less than for those in home care as they get to preschool age - they've already had their share!"

Professor Goldfeld adds that the way children play and the habits they form can impact their likelihood to catch contagious bugs. For example, at childcare, some children may intermingle in a more physical way, while others who play in a more isolated manner may never bring certain illnesses home.

What about genetics? Do some families have a stronger make up than others?

Dr Sutton says "genetics and the immune system won't play a big role for most families, but may for a small proportion, such as those with very pre-term bubs."

I also spoke to Dr Catherine Murray, a mum of four who has been a GP for over 15 years. She says, "While I'm not aware of any study looking into family predisposition to particular illnesses, anecdotally as a GP, I do find there are families who present more often with gastroenteritis or recurrent otitis media (ear infections) than others."

We are one of those families and I'd love to know how we can prevent recurrent gastro in our house. Dr Sutton says, "Hand washing with soap and excluding sick kids from daycare will have the strongest preventive role, but it's hard to prevent much."

Perhaps the answer is to don a Michael Jackson-esque mask and stop the contagion in its tracks? Excuse me while I moonwalk to the sink and wash my hands.

For more information on gastroenteritis, refer to this fact sheet from The Royal Children's Hospital. Or come to my house at Easter.

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