School flu clinics cut absences in half

Chris Dorst
Nurse Rosemary Wills, of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, gives a flu shot to Patrick O'Leary, a sophomore at Charleston Catholic High School.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Health officials say fewer Kanawha County students are staying home from school because of a flu vaccination program offered by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.In the flu season during the 2010-11 school year, Kanawha County's public and private schools had about half as many absences they typically expect to see, said Health Department Executive Director Dr. Rahul Gupta. Elementary schools had 59 percent fewer absences than they typically expect, he said.Gupta said the higher-than-expected attendance rate is a result of more students being vaccinated in the Health Department's in-school vaccination clinics."Among the kids who got more shots, there was a better rate," Gupta said. "Obviously it wasn't a fluke thing."This is the fourth year health officials have gone into public and private schools to offer vaccines to Kanawha County's approximately 30,000 students.Brenda Isaac, lead school nurse for Kanawha County Schools, said the elementary schools in particular have seen a decrease in absenteeism during flu season."Now you can't say for sure what's causing it," Isaac said. "We have definitely, over probably the past three to four years, seen decreased rates in diagnosed cases of the flu."More than just offering the vaccinations, the program teaches school staff about the importance of the immunizations, she said. "This program is as much about education as it is about the immunizations," she said.A letter about the importance of the flu vaccines goes home with students to their parents, Isaac said. Teachers work with school nurses to ensure the permission slip is signed, she said."In the process, you're bringing it to the staff's attention too and educating them," Isaac said.Some parents choose to take their children to their family physician instead of having them vaccinated at school, she said.
Higher numbers of students with the immunization has also meant that fewer staff members have been off work due to illness, she said.When fewer children are home with the flu, fewer parents and grandchildren have to stay home from work with the students, Gupta said. Fewer parents and grandparents get sick when students are vaccinated, he said."Ninety percent of the deaths related to the flu are in elderly adults," Gupta said.
The program started in 2009 when the Health Department vaccinated students against the H1N1 "swine flu" virus with federally funded vaccinations. Since then the Health Department has been offering flu vaccines to students each flu season without much funding.Instead of relying on grant or government funding, the Health Department bills students' insurance plans to cover the costs of the vaccines.Health officials ask parents to volunteer their insurance information.About 91 percent of the parents provide the insurance information voluntarily, Gupta said. Of those who give their insurance information, health officials were able to bill 90 percent last year. The goal is to bill 100 percent of the insurance companies, Gupta said.Children whose parents choose not to give insurance information or who do not have insurance may receive a federally funded vaccine anyway, Gupta said.Health Department officials will travel to San Francisco to present information about the flu vaccination program Wednesday at this week's American Public Health Association annual meeting.
"The presentation is a recognition that this was an innovative model," Gupta said. "We presented part of it last year. This year we will present the absentee data to show that fewer kids are staying out of school."We're getting calls from all over the country, from Minnesota to California. People are asking us for information," Gupta said. "They want to replicate the model."Reach Lori Kersey at or 304-348-1240.
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