Column: Flu shots for kids protect whole community

Published December 11 2014
Updated December 11 2014

Too few Floridians get their flu shots. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reported that last year the Sunshine State had the worst influenza immunization rate in the United States, leaving our seniors and other susceptible groups disturbingly vulnerable.

But new research shows that a more strategic approach — namely, vaccinating schoolchildren — may help protect entire communities. As every parent knows, schools are virus exchange systems, and children are super spreaders. If we could stop or slow spread of disease within schools, we would also protect the student's family members, as well as the community as a whole. This concept is supported by mathematical modeling studies that suggest that immunizing 20 percent of children provides more protection to those over 65 than immunizing 90 percent of the elderly.

Does it work? In Alachua County, a school-based influenza immunization program — a collaborative effort of the county health department, the school system and community pediatricians — has for the past four years consistently achieved flu immunization rates among school-aged children that exceed 50 percent. And it shows. In research just published in the journal PLOS ONE, we find that this has resulted in almost complete protection of children in the 0-4 year age group (presumably because big brother or sister is not bringing the virus home from school), as well a significant reductions in influenza cases in the entire community.

That's important news with all but eight Florida counties having evidence of mild to moderate influenza transmission by the first week of December, based on data reported to the Florida Department of Health. Remember, flu is more than just a nuisance. It can be a life-threatening illness for the elderly and those with chronic diseases, and can have a major economic impact due to missed time from work (including time missed to care for a sick child).

Florida shouldn't be proud of having the worst overall influenza immunization rate. Maybe it's time to make it the nation's protected state, and take advantage of the cost savings associated with disease prevention. The Alachua County school-located immunization program shows that targeting immunization to groups at high risk of transmitting the disease — kids — pays off. Following the lead of Alachua County, and with the support of the Florida Department of Health and the Legislature, we could become the national model for flu prevention. What's not to like about saving lives — and being the best?

Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr. is director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, and Dr. Parker A. Small Jr. is a professor emeritus there. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.