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rying to convince a gymnasium full of fifth-graders that getting a flu shot is in their best interest is a hard sell, but the city’s health director is giving it his best.
“Does anybody know the best way not to get the flu?” Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of the Metropolitan Health District, asked the students at Larkspur Elementary School on Wednesday morning. “Flu vaccination. It can be a shot, but it also can be the little medicine you get squirted up your nose.”
With flu season typically starting next month, doctors, nurses and even two-time Olympic soccer gold medalist Brandi Chastain descended on the North East Independent School District campus to raise awareness that children are major spreaders of flu and should get vaccinated against it, like their parents do.
Metro Health plans to follow the Larkspur students through the end of the school year.
About 160 were immunized Wednesday. Add an almost equal number of those whose parents have said they plan to have their kids vaccinated elsewhere, and that would bring the total to about 30 percent of Larkspur students.
Health officials are fairly sure that’s considerably higher than at neighboring schools, particularly this early in the season, although the exact rates aren’t yet known.
The health department wants to compare rates of flu-like illness, absences and even test scores to see if they’re better in a highly immunized campus than in other local schools, as studies in other places have shown. Students who miss fewer school days tend to do better academically.
“It’s a health issue, but it’s also an issue that’s going to help their kids do better in school,” said Anil Mangla, chief of epidemiology at Metro Health, who in his previous job organized school-based flu vaccination clinics in Georgia, a program he said now includes 1,000 campuses and some of the highest flu vaccination rates in the country.
Depending on the results at Larkspur, Mangla said, it might make sense to copy that program here — bringing flu vaccine to the students instead of hoping their busy parents will remember to take kids to the doctor or corner drugstore.
Fifth-grader Torrian Sumlin, 10, looked nervous as she sat for her flu vaccination but brightened after the nurse from Little Spurs Pediatric Urgent Care clinics gave her the nasal spray instead of a needle.
“The good thing is there’s choice,” Mangla said. “Many parents are scared of the shot. But now they have a nasal spray, and they have a dermal (patch) now, as well.”
Schlenker said it has become apparent in recent years that little kids play an oversized role in flu epidemics, infecting each other in the classroom, then bringing flu home with them after the bell rings to infect siblings, parents, grandparents and anyone else within coughing distance.
Influenza is the most serious of the respiratory infections that circulate each winter, infecting between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population annually and killing thousands. The elderly, the chronically ill and pregnant women are at higher risk of serious complications.
In recent years, the recommendation for who should get a flu shot has grown to include virtually everyone older than 6 months.
Flu can hit children hard, too. During the 2010-11 season, 122 children died from flu nationwide.
Although individual flu cases aren’t reported to health departments, daily absentee rates can double during flu season from the normal 3 percent to 5 percent. Intense outbreaks at individual schools can send those rates soaring to 20 percent or higher.
“We see a spike in absentee rates during the months of the flu season,” Larkspur school nurse Rosalinda Heard said. “Most of them are flu or flu-like symptoms. It’s hard to say if it’s 100 percent flu.”