How flu-proofed is Alachua County?

School vaccines may help reduce number of flu cases


Pharmacist Eric Jakab assists customer Kristen Tellier at the pharmacy at Target in Gainesville on Tuesday. Tellier's children are sick with the flu.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 at 8:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 at 8:31 p.m.

As flu season gets under way with an uptick reported last week in flu-related hospital emergency room visits, health officials are watching to see if the third year of large-scale child vaccinations will reduce flu and flu-related deaths in Alachua County.

Facts

Flu deaths in Alachua County

Alachua County flu deaths/ County flu & pneumonia death rate*/ Statewide rate for the same*
2007 ----- 2 ------ 10.3 ------ 8.5
2008 ----- 3 ----- 7.8 ----- 8.5
2009** ----- 4 ----- 11.2 ----- 9.1
2010 ----- 0 ----- 7.5 ----- 8.0
*Deaths per 100,000 population
**Year of H191, also known as swine flu, when a novel virus took hold, producing atypical experience.
Source: Alachua County Health Department, State Department of Health

The theory is that immunizing children protects everyone — and, according to UF statistics, could reduce flu and flu-related deaths by 84 percent. So a partnership between the Alachua County government, the University of Florida and area businesses again this fall flu-proofed county schoolchildren at rates similar to last year, which earned this area national recognition from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association.

And now the watching begins.



"Based on the vaccinations in the fall a year ago, there appears to have been a definite reduction" in flu and flu-related deaths in 2011, said Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of the UF's Emerging Pathogens Institute. "It's going to take us several years to get this data together … So we're looking to see what sort of an impact (widespread flu immunization of schoolchildren) has this year."

Based on data comparing when Japan mandated that all schoolchildren be flu-vaccinated and when it became voluntary — and the ensuing death rates — UF's mathematical modeling found that flu and flu-related deaths could be reduced in Alachua County by 84 percent if 70 percent of the schoolchildren are immunized.

That hypothetically would mean seven deaths from flu and flu-related illnesses such as pneumonia instead of 38, said Paul Myers, interim Alachua County Health Department.

He said it also shows that the indirect and direct costs of flu would be reduced locally by $9.37 million or 85 percent — and that 120 hospital visits would be reduced to 100.

"The concept is that we've been immunizing the wrong group," said UF's Morris, pointing out that the elderly usually don't have as good immune response to the vaccine as children do. And that children's impact on the whole health of the community has been underestimated.

"What the studies are showing increasingly is that schools are flu transmission systems," he said. "And kids excrete higher levels of flu virus."

An $80,000 grant from the Alachua County Commission along with efforts from a number of businesses and volunteers immunized 45 percent of the Alachua County's elementary students, 33 percent of middle schoolers and 16 percent of high schoolers regardless of insurance.

Those rates of immunization for elementary school children are down slightly from the first two years of the program, but data from the state Department of Health shows that the effort might be beginning to make a difference.

The figures are hard to come by, though. The CDC estimates that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, flu-associated deaths nationwide over those 30 years ranged broadly, from a low one year of about 3,000 to a high another year of about 49,000 people.

The Health Department's Myers said he believes that flu-related illnesses such as pneumonia and other respiratory infections ought to be considered part of the flu's annual toll.

State Department of Health figures combine flu and pneumonia in one category and the county's death rate from flu and pneumonia exceeded the state average for those deaths for eight out of the 10 years between 1998 and 2007. But Alachua County's flu and pneumonia death rate for two out of the last three years has fallen below the state average.

However, it's early.

Both Alachua and Marion counties are in the state's "mild" category for flu activity, with one sample testing positive for the common strain AH3 flu virus in December. But January, February and March are historically the months when activity picks up and peaks.

"This is really the time to immunize," said Isabel Anasco, the county's epidemiologist. She said the vaccine is effective seven to 10 days after getting a flu shot. "It's not too late."

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