Debate over swine flu vaccinations for kids at schools

Charlie Houley, 8, receives a shot of a

Charlie Houley, 8, receives a shot of a trial vaccine for the swine flu from a nurse in Annapolis, Md. (Aug. 27, 2009) (Credit: AP)

With a swine flu vaccine expected to be ready in October, a debate has emerged about the best way to vaccinate children.

Fearing the H1N1 virus will spread quickly among students and staff once school starts next week, many school officials say the most efficient solution is to do mass vaccinations in schools, as when the polio vaccine was given in the 1950s.

"We'd love to be able to do it," said Rockville Centre schools Superintendent William Johnson, whose district had one confirmed case of H1N1 in the spring.

But health officials in Nassau and Suffolk said their plans call for students and the public to get the shot from their personal doctors or at point-of-dispensing locations, such as community centers. Schools could be used, they say, if the need arises.

Proponents of using schools as vaccination centers say it is the best and quickest way to reach the most children, especially those with parents who lack the time or means to take them to doctors.

Opponents cite logistical difficulties of communicating with parents and getting their approval for shots.

"It's not as easy as sending a note home for parents to sign," Suffolk Health Commissioner Dr. Humayun Chaudhry said. "A doctor can better explain what the vaccine involves. To do that through a piece of paper is probably not ideal."

Chaudhry said issuing vaccinations through schools would be difficult because not all districts have nurses certified to administer vaccinations.

Nassau also is reluctant.

"I would rather use the system that's in place before we create new avenues," said Nassau Health Commissioner Dr. Maria Torroella Carney.

Still, Johnson said, vaccinating children through public schools would provide protection for about 70 percent of the kids in the community; giving the vaccine in private schools would increase the percentage to as much as 95 percent.

"We want to get as many people vaccinated as we can," he said.

People between 6 months and 24 years old are the most susceptible to the H1N1 virus. On Long Island, nearly 1 million are in that group, including 480,000 in Suffolk. In Nassau, 425,851 people are 24 and younger.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said making schools part of the vaccine distribution network is a "logical solution" to reaching as many kids as possible, said Duncan spokesman Justin Hamilton.

"Being able to deliver the vaccine to them in school would make a lot of sense," he said.

South Carolina plans to have vaccination clinics in each of the state's 1,100 schools, said a spokesman for that state's Department of Education.

Amityville Superintendent John Williams said he was wary of the idea.

"That's not our business," said Williams, whose district had an outbreak in the spring of a different strain of influenza. "We would have to work closely with our legal team before we got involved in it."

Glen Cove Superintendent Laurence Aronstein said it makes sense to use schools as vaccination centers because many parents in his district are either uninsured or work multiple jobs, and don't have time to take their children to a doctor. "I would hate to see a system set up where not everyone will have access," he said.

For some, the vaccine itself causes concern. Andrea Goldman, a representative of the Plainview-Old Bethpage PTA who has children in eighth and 11th grades, said she is worried about the safety of the vaccine.

"I'm very, very torn about this," she said. "I'm hoping they have carefully tested it and that any type of side effects and risks are completely vetted out before they start vaccinating everyone." With Stacey Altherr

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