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Kanawha flu vaccine program under way

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lewis, a first-grader at Kenna Elementary, began to cry as Alison Corbin swabbed his arm with alcohol.

He was sitting on school nurse Lisa Hartney's lap in a plastic chair in the school's library. Hartney gently wrapped her arms around Lewis, who had started to squirm.

Corbin, a nurse with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, continued about her business, removing a flu vaccine from its packaging. Lewis saw the needle and began to squirm even more.

"No!" he hollered.

Some of his classmates peeked around a corner. Teachers were sending students into the library two at a time to avoid undue freak-outs. Poor Lewis' yelps did little to help morale.

Hartney wrapped her arms a little more tightly around the little boy, and Corbin plunged the needle into his arm. His tears instantly subsided.

"Is that the only one I get?" he asked.

Corbin and fellow nurse Sherry Graves doled out 90 flu vaccines at Kenna Elementary on Monday morning, all in about two hours. Children moved through the library with assembly line precision: the ones carrying white permission forms received shots, while those holding a yellow paper got an intranasal spray vaccine.

This year's school clinics began three weeks ago and will continue into early December. Health department nurses will visit each Kanawha County school, including the private ones, to administer 7,000 to 8,000 shots.

Health department and school officials say the program is a great success.

Since they began during 2009's H1N1 "swine flu" outbreaks," the flu clinics have greatly reduced student absences, which results in fewer missed days of work for Mom and Dad and also has cut the number of flu cases in older adults. Young children are among the leading causes of flu in grandparents.

But there's another side effect of the flu clinics, a decidedly non-medical one, that is catching the attention of health officials nationwide.

While many school systems across the country provide students with flu vaccines, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's yearly clinics are rare because they are completely self-sustaining.

On each year's flu shot permission form, the health department asks parents to voluntarily provide their health insurance information.

More than 90 percent of parents include the information, health department Executive Director Rahul Gupta said, and the health department bills those insurance companies for the flu shots.

The department then uses that money to cover "the cost of going out there and doing it," Gupta said, along with the cost of vaccines for the 9 percent of children whose parents did not provide health insurance information.

"If they don't have insurance, they don't have to worry about it. They'll still get the shots," he said.

Health department officials traveled to San Francisco this week for the American Public Health Association, where they were invited to speak about Kanawha's school flu clinics.

Gupta said health departments in other states use money from their budgets to buy vaccines or get local businesses to donate money to purchase the shots.

But last year the health department billed health insurance companies for 6,942 flu vaccines and received $84,000.

The health department spent about $69,500 on the school flu clinics — $45,000 for vaccines, $18,000 for staff and $6,500 on supplies — and ended up with a surplus of $14,500.

That allows the department to vaccinate even more children, which will drive down the number of children who get the flu.

"That's what immunizations are all about. The larger group you get immunized, the fewer people will get a disease," said Brenda Isaac, Kanawha schools' head school nurse.

Gupta said data from the last two years shows a 50 percent drop in Kanawha students' "expected absenteeism," a measure of student absences compared to the expected number of absences.

He said that figure dropped 59 percent among elementary school students.

Isaac could not provide numbers to show student flu cases have dropped since the vaccine clinics began, but she said school nurses are noticing a significant drop in absences related to influenza.

"As it's become more commonplace for children to get immunizations, we've seen a decline consistently over time. In the last three years since we've been doing the flu shots (clinics)...we've seen very few flu cases," she said.

Nurse Hartney said plenty of children at Kenna missed school last winter with everything from pneumonia to strep throat, but she doesn't think anyone got the flu.

"Last year, I don't remember one case," she said.

That information is probably more comforting to parents than to needle-shy students like Lewis, however, so Hartney just tries to shield their little eyes as the needle approaches.

"It's always the anticipation. If they see, it always gets them worked up," she said.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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