Go after vaccine stragglers

February 01, 2007

About 5,000 Maryland middle-schoolers, mostly in Baltimore and Prince George's County, are still being kept out of school because they have not shown proof that they have been immunized against hepatitis B and chicken pox. By tomorrow, they will have been excluded from classes for two full weeks - an unacceptable interval when important subjects are being missed and state assessments are about a month away. State and local officials need to accelerate their efforts to make sure the remaining stragglers either get the necessary shots or are allowed to go back to school until they can be vaccinated.

The most alarming thing about the noncompliance is what it may reveal about far more profound problems among some families, such as disturbing levels of inattention or dysfunction when it comes to making sure kids are in school. These are long-term issues that will have to be addressed.

Most school districts are in full or nearly full compliance with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's immunization requirement imposed on all students through ninth grade at the urging of the General Assembly. But about 3,000 students in Baltimore, 1,300 in Prince George's County and probably fewer than 500 in a handful of other jurisdictions still haven't been immunized.

Despite a shortage of state funds for extra clinics when schools first announced the requirement in January 2006, officials made an effort to reach out to students and families - with extended-hour clinics, letters, phone calls and direct contacts with parents.

But many health, school and even legislative officials who pushed the requirement have been surprised by the number of students who have yet to be immunized, exposing a troubling divide between families that have complied with the regulation and those that have not. Baltimore school administrators estimate that about one-third of noncompliant students are chronic truants, and they have stepped up efforts to find them.

The remaining noncompliant students may be victims of what some officials are calling "parent apathy." Those families also need more aggressive outreach, and officials are talking about sending nurses door to door by the end of next week or having teams of social service experts intervene and help with family problems.

An amnesty is also being considered that could bring students back into their schools or alternative learning centers with arrangements for expedited vaccinations. Those are all good ideas, but they need to be implemented sooner rather than later.

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