As flu season approaches, parents of children in public schools have been granted an extended deadline to consent for their children to receive free flu vaccines at school through the Control Flu program.
Alachua County Public Schools announced Monday that parents now have until Sept. 30.
The program, founded in 2007 by Dr. Parker Small, a University of Florida emeritus professor of pediatrics, provides free doses of FluMist, a nasal spray vaccine manufactured by MedImmune, to public and private school students in Alachua County. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone over the age of six months get a yearly seasonal flu vaccine.
Vaccinating school-age children protects high-risk populations like infants and the elderly from contracting the flu.
Computer model projections by Ira Longini, professor of biostatistics at the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, predicted that if only 20 percent of pre-K through 12th grade students were vaccinated, it would be more effective in protecting the elderly than vaccinating 90 percent of elderly people.
The program’s goal is to vaccinate 70 percent of the school-age population, which, according to the same model projections, will protect the entire community from the flu.
“Children get ill more frequently, shed more virus when they’re ill and shed it for longer periods of time than adults,” said Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a UF pediatrician and medical coordinator for the program.
Consent forms and information sheets were distributed to students in the first two weeks of school. Originally, the deadline to return consent forms was set for Friday.
This year, federal guidelines require the vaccination program to collect health insurance information for those students who currently have coverage.
FluMist will still be free for all parents, regardless of insurance coverage. The vaccines will be administered in public schools starting in October.
A cooperative effort of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute, the UF Department of Pediatrics, the Alachua County Health Department and Alachua County Public Schools, the program has been nationally recognized by the CDC and American Medical Association as one of the best school-located vaccine programs, winning first place in the nation at the 2011 National Influenza Vaccine Summit.
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners voted last year to give money to the program for 15 more years through the CHOICES Health Services program, which assists uninsured people and funds innovative programs.
Prior to 2013, the vaccination program was made possible through additional funding from CHOICES Health Services, free vaccines from the state of Florida and donated time from health department personnel, UF College of Nursing students, UF graduate students and research assistants.
UF researchers have studied this program since its conception to see whether vaccinating school-age children will really create community immunity, and so far it appears the answer is yes, Ryan said. The results of the study will be published within the next few months.
Paul Myers, administrator for the Alachua County Health Department, said last year’s flu season was particularly bad.
“There’s no question in my mind that they would’ve suffered a much worse flu season than they did (without the Control Flu program),” Myers said. “The number of people who were at the emergency room with influenza-like illness was much lower in Alachua County than in north central Florida and the state.”
Levy County is the only other county in North Central Florida to implement this kind of program targeted at schools. The Levy County Health Department has been administering FluMist to students for the past three years, and though an evaluation of the program’s effectiveness has not been conducted yet due to limited resources, there were no outbreaks of flu reported in Levy County Schools last year.
According to the CDC, a flu vaccine cannot cause the flu illness. Some people may experience mild reactions to the vaccine, but severe allergic reactions are rare.
“There are still a lot of negative thoughts about the flu vaccine — that if we get it, we’ll get the flu or it’ll make us sick — a lot of things like that,” said Barbara Locke, administrator at the Levy County Health Department. “We’re trying to change that perception with parents and emphasize the importance of getting the flu vaccine for children.”