The flu vaccine can protect children, even when they don’t personally receive it.
When half of 5- to 17-year-old children in Alachua County, Florida were vaccinated through a school-based program, the entire age group’s flu rates decreased by 79 percent.
Strikingly, the rate of influenza-like illness among 0-4 year olds went down 89 percent, despite the fact that this group was not included in the school-based vaccinations. Among all non-school-aged residents, rates of influenza-like illness decreased by 60 percent.
The results can help communities decide how to effectively allocate funding, doses of flu vaccine, and awareness campaigns to protect the most people, researchers say.
Flu kills thousands of Americans each year, but even when it isn’t fatal, the virus takes a toll: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate an annual cost of $10.4 billion in hospitalizations and outpatient visits related to flu.
“The effect of school-based vaccination was profound, both on the students and on the community,” says Cuc Tran, a doctoral student in public health at University of Florida and lead author of a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Kids and babies
With 38 million school days a year lost to flu, the study likely will catch the attention of school districts nationwide, says Nichole Bobo, director of nursing education for the National Association of School Nurses.
“Stakeholders in school districts see the connection between health and learning,” she says. Add in the indirect protection, and “you’re able to keep staff in school and parents at work.”
The study is the first to show such pronounced indirect protection among the very young. While babies under 6 months old are susceptible to flu, they cannot be vaccinated. The same goes people with health conditions that prevent them from being immunized.
“It allows us to protect those who can’t otherwise be protected,” Tran says.
They spread more germs
Beginning in 2006, a pilot program provided free flu vaccines, delivered via a nasal spray, to public-school students. The study data came from the 2011-12 and 2012-13 influenza seasons.
There are a few reasons to focus flu prevention on schoolchildren: when they get flu, they get sick longer and shed more of the virus through their less-than-perfect hygiene habits, making them more likely to infect others.
They also interact with more people each day than most adults do, providing more opportunity to spread flu.
The new study shows that getting school-aged kids immunized can pay dividends throughout the community, says Parker Small, Jr., a co-founder of the study and a professor emeritus in UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.
“Flu is the last pandemic killer of mankind,” Small says. “Just look at all of the energy devoted to thinking and planning about Ebola. If that same energy was put into flu, you could be saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars.”
Source: University of Florida