Alachua County getting closer to 70 percent flu vaccination rate for students


In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo Deanna Davis, then 6, receives a FluMist vaccination at Glen Springs Elementary School in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.

Alachua County has a much lower rate of influenza-induced emergency room visits among children and adolescents than elsewhere in the state and nation, due in part to its nationally recognized FluMist vaccine program.

This is the main message of the annual Control Flu Celebration scheduled for this afternoon at Littlewood Elementary School.

Since the program's inception in 2009, the county has distinguished itself from others in the state for high vaccination rates in the schools — especially elementary schools. This year, 61 percent of students were vaccinated, which is inching toward the goal of 70 percent, said Dr. Parker Small, who helped develop the school vaccination program and is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

That is the estimated percentage of kids that would need to be vaccinated, Small explained, in order to protect the entire community, according to predictive models developed at the University of Florida.

"This is groundbreaking stuff," said Paul Myers, administrator of the Alachua County Health Department, explaining that the county's low flu rates support the UF models, a situation that "has gotten the attention of pediatricians and public health officials not only from around the state, but around the country."

Dr. Kathleen Ryan, clinical associate professor in the pediatrics department at UF, added: "This year, we've had really bad flu all over the place, and we aren't seeing it in Alachua County."

The administrators of FluMist also are celebrating the fact that the Alachua County Commission has committed $1.5 million for the program to continue over the next 15 years.

Ryan said the program's success hinges on the commitment of both the school system as well as local pediatricians and doctors. In addition to the students vaccinated at schools, another 10 percent or so — in elementary schools — will get vaccinated at the doctor's office, she said.

Elementary school children are easier to target because parents are still generally in charge of their children's care, whereas in middle and high schools, some children start to oversee their own care and can more easily fall through the cracks, said Jackie Johnson, public information officer for Alachua County Public Schools.

"As kids get older, parents back off," Johnson said. "You've got teens who think they are invincible, and some still think (the vaccine) is a shot." The FluMist vaccine is a nasal spray.

Johnson added that middle school vaccination rates are about 40 percent; high schools, by comparison, have a rate of about 20 percent.

To work on high school students, an initiative spearheaded in part by Small effectively increased vaccination rates at Buchholz High School. Working with a biology teacher there, Small played a "community immunity" game with freshman biology students in which he handed out playing cards to students and called out which ones had the flu and would subsequently give it to two other people — the average number of people infected by someone with the flu.

Then they played the same game with half the students having been vaccinated. Forty-seven percent of students who initially had said they would not get vaccinated had changed their minds. The main reason? To protect their friends and families.

"A significant number of students are altruistic, so (you're more successful) if you can get to that," Small explained, adding that the term "community immunity" is more effective than the more common term of "herd immunity," given the sense of individualism that high school students often endorse.

A follow-up survey showed that the Buchholz students did in fact have higher vaccination rates than their peers at other schools. This year, Small and colleagues will take the game to the other area high schools.

Flu season generally starts right before Thanksgiving and lasts through early March.

Small added that another improvement to the program since its inception is that the administrators now are asking for all parental consent forms back, even if parents don't agree to have their children vaccinated. Before, they asked only for the positive consent forms back.

"They aren't just yes or no questions," Johnson added. "Parents have to answer some medical questions." She added that the district leaves phone messages at home and also provides the consent form online in case children lose it.

"We try a number of different ways to reach out to parents," Johnson said.

Four elementary schools had 100 percent consent form return rates: Archer, Glen Springs, Newberry and Norton.

The FluMist Celebration begins at 3 p.m. inside the Terrell Auditorium at Littlewood Elementary School at 812 NW 34th St. The guest speaker is Dr. John Robbins, chief of the Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Biology in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Refreshments will be provided by Eastside High School students from the school's culinary arts program.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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