For the eighth year in a row, East Baton Rouge Parish public schools are providing students with flu vaccinations free of charge. But while the price is hard to beat, the effort is nevertheless proving a tough sell, especially to older students.
Nate Batiste thinks he knows why.
“When adults talk to kids, they are just lecturing,” explained Batiste, 17. “When kids talk to another kid, we can put it in a way they can agree with.”
“We can say 1,000 words with one word,” he added.
Batiste, a senior, and a handful of other teenagers are busy breaking it down these days for their vaccination-shy fellow students at Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge.
The nonprofit Health Centers in Schools, which oversees the flu vaccinations, began this approach of having teenagers explain public health matters to each other in fall 2013. Woodlawn’s group is one of its most active.
Last year, the second year of the program, Woodlawn had 150 students, or 13 percent of its 1,200 students, receive a flu shot or inhale FluMist nasal spray.
“In the past, the most we had in any given year was 70,” said Marilyn Aillet, the school nurse.
Thirteen percent is well above the anemic 5 percent average for Baton Rouge public high schools as a whole. But it’s still below the average of 16 percent for elementary schools in town and well short of the 40 percent goal for the whole school district.
Forty percent is the minimum to achieve what public health professionals call “herd immunity.” That’s a tipping point where enough people are protected against an ailment to provide indirect protection for an entire population, in this case, a school.
Batiste said he’s shooting to double last years vaccination numbers to 300. That’s roughly 25 percent of Woodlawn’s students, short of 40 percent, but better than most schools in the parish, including most elementary schools.
Consent forms have already been sent home to Woodlawn High parents. They have a Dec. 4 deadline to turn them in to qualify for vaccinations on Dec. 8.
During the two days before the deadline Batiste and nine other members of the school’s student health advisory council plan to visit every homeroom class at the high school and speak for two or three minute about the need to get immunized. Batiste said he and other students make sure to explain why flu vaccinations are important as well as addressing whatever worries they might have.
Many students express an age-old concern that if they get immunized, they will get the flu. Batiste said he explains to them that, yes, there is a tiny bit of the flu virus in each dose, but only enough to trigger the body’s immune system to develop sufficient protection to stop the flu from developing later.
Aillet added that if a person gets the flu after getting immunized, most likely they had contracted the flu already, but it hadn’t yet shown itself.
Principal Scott Stevens, who religiously gets immunized each year along with his two children, said having students explain the basics of flu immunization to other students helps combat the misinformation about vaccinations that students easily find online.
Batiste offers personal stories to drive the point home.
“I actually have a peer who said he got a shot and his sister didn’t and she got the flu,” he said.
Flu is a serious matter. More than 20,000 children nationwide are hospitalized each year because of complications from the flu, and last season, more than 140 children died.
Most students prefer to get vaccinated via the nasal spray rather than brave the needle. Batiste is the opposite. For him, a flu shot makes him feel safe.
“Growing up, I would get the shot and the doctor would say, ‘It’s all better,’” he said.
He avoids FluMist for another reason.
“The mist, after you get it, it runs down your nose,” he said. “I don’t like that.”
Batiste’s passion for spreading the word about vaccinations and promoting good health in general comes, in part, from his mother. She is a nurse at Our Lady Of The Lake Regional Medical Center. He recalls her pressing him to be sure to get vaccinated each year.
“My mother would show us pictures — pictures of people with high fever, extreme vomiting, things a kid should never see,” Batiste said, laughing at the memory.
Other experiences helped shape him as well.
“I have seen people who struggle with health issues. I visited Earl K. Long (charity hospital) when it was still open, and I saw the conditions that some people actually had to go through and I wanted to change that,” Batiste said. “I promised myself that one day I would make a difference in health care.”
Batiste’s plans to marry his interest in public health with his love of technology. He said he intends to major in biomedical engineering and eventually would like to use 3-D printers, robots and other technologies to create tools to help medical professionals.
“I want to work at The Lake with the nurses to match them up with the technology they need,” he said.