Pupils can get free nasal-spray flu vaccine

September 03, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Free nasal-spray flu vaccinations will be available to elementary school pupils through a program county school officials plan to announce to parents Tuesday.

The county hopes to safeguard about 18,000 pupils from the flu with the vaccine, which will be dispensed in each elementary school next month. Children ages 5-11 are eligible if their parents sign and return permission slips by Friday.

Harford County has joined a nationwide pilot program, sponsored by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that encourages nasal vaccinations for children, who are four times more likely to contract flu and spread it, health officials said.

"For years, we have known that vaccinating school-age children could significantly reduce the numbers of influenza cases," said Dr. Andrew Bernstein, Harford's health officer. The program could also reduce the number of absences, which rises to about 900 pupils during the flu season, said Jacqueline C. Haas, superintendent of schools.

"You compact all those people in one place, and there is a real potential for spreading disease," she said. "The real motivator for us is the potential for a healthier community at large. If you keep the little ones healthy, they won't pass illness on."

The county will send letters with details on the program and requests for parents' signatures home with pupils Tuesday. The call system will contact families about the permission slips.

"Families will receive packets of information with the dates spelled out," Haas said. "Signed permissions must be returned to the schools by Friday."

Influenza, an infectious respiratory virus that affects about one-third of the population every winter, causes about 36,000 deaths in the nation annually and sends more than 200,000 people to hospitals, health officials said. Efforts to control flu usually involve inoculating the elderly and chronically ill, but the focus has shifted to children recently.

Instead of the typical shot in the arm, eligible children will receive a free dose of FluMist, a vaccine in a nasal spray.

The nasal spray contains a weakened live virus, similar to inoculations children receive for chicken pox or mumps, and does not cause reactions associated with injections, said Dr. Charles McCannon, Harford's chief medical officer.

"You won't get the flu from this," McCannon said. "People may be apprehensive about the newness, but there are low side effects - typically a runny nose, a little fever and irritability. It tastes like sugar when it goes to the back of the throat."

FluMist helps the body develop disease-fighting antibodies in the nose and bloodstream, according to MedImmune, the pharmaceutical company that developed and manufactures it. The weakened version of the flu virus in each dose causes the immune system to respond and protect the body without initiating a case of the flu, according to the company's Web site on FluMist.

School and health officials have taped an information session on the project that will air evenings this month on Public Health Matters, a Harford Cable Network program.

Each vial contains half a cubic centimeter of FluMist. A nurse will spray half the dose in one nostril and the remaining mist in the other. A clip stops the mist at the halfway mark to prevent overdoses.

Teachers will have sample vials to show pupils how the nasal spray works. Haas has asked teachers who are not older than 49 (and therefore eligible for the nasal vaccine) to take the dose first to demonstrate its ease to the children.

Health officials expect about half of the eligible pupils in the county to request the spray, but they are prepared if more want it. Home-schooled children and those in private school can also receive the vaccine, probably at flu clinics.

"There is adequate vaccine available for all those eligible, but usually about 50 percent will take advantage of it," Bernstein said.

The CDC, the state and MedImmune are sharing the costs of the vaccinations - about $16 a dose - this year.

"We have been working with Harford County to move forward with the FluMist Immunization Program," said Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine, deputy secretary for public health services with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"It is an initiative that will keep children and teachers healthy and in school. We are working to expand the program and look forward to sharing more information."

Harford was preparing a vaccine program at five elementary schools this fall when the state announced broader funding last month. The county will now offer it in all 24 elementary schools.

Plans call for vaccinations to be administered in the schools on Oct. 12 and 13, then on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 for children who need a second dose. School nurses will also be available to answer parents' questions.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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