Twenty-five students got out of class Tuesday morning to go to the library at Park Forest Middle School in Baton Rouge, where nurses waited to spray FluMist into their nostrils. That mildly unpleasant, tingly spray might protect them and their family from coming down with the flu this winter.
They are the first of thousands of schoolchildren in town who will be vaccinated for the flu in the coming weeks. The East Baton Rouge Parish school system began annual free vaccinations in 2008 and last year expanded them to middle and high school students. Most students these days are opting for the nasal spray, though some, such as students suffering from asthma, still have to take an old-fashioned flu shot.
Park Forest Middle is on track to have about 200 of its more than 800 students vaccinated this winter, far more than last year. Herman Brister Sr., an assistant superintendent for the school system, urged the students in the library to persuade still more of their classmates to get vaccinated, enough to bring the total to 600 students.
“You guys are the ambassadors who can go out and make this happen,” Brister said.
Marquila Veal, 13, an eighth-grader, said the nasal spray was not as bad as what a couple of his classmates told him to expect.
“They said they thought it would burn,” Veal said.
“My eyes watered over, but they’re better now,” said Anna Holland, 12, a seventh-grader, walking away from her vaccination.
Halie Dixon, 12, a seventh-grader, wasn’t jazzed about the experience either, but she said getting the flu is far worse.
“It’s pretty bad to see someone go through it,” Dixon said.
School-age children are most likely to contract the seasonal flu. Some years, it can be deadly. The 2003-04 flu season saw the deaths of 153 children across the United States.
East Baton Rouge Parish school officials aim to get at least 40 percent of students vaccinated each year to achieve what epidemiologists call “herd immunity.” That’s enough to keep the flu at manageable levels and head off spikes in student absenteeism as well as limit infection of other students, fellow family members and school employees.
Sue Catchings, executive director of the nonprofit Health Centers in Schools, said about 6,100 students took advantage of the free vaccinations last year, almost 15 percent of the students in the parish school system. She’s hoping to double that this year. She said a few schools topped 40 percent last year, but a handful of middle and high schools had rates as low as 2 percent.
“I’ve got a secret weapon,” she said with a smile. “This year, we’re giving out T-shirts.”
Also, some schools have teams of students who try to sell their peers on getting vaccinated. Park Forest Middle Principal Curtis Walker said he’s giving vaccinated students a period of about 40 minutes to socialize freely with each other.
Walker said he gets vaccinated every year and makes sure his family does as well.
“I’ve got three kids and a grandmother who comes over all the time,” he said.
The school system relies on federal, state and private funds to pay for the systemwide vaccinations.
The private sponsor is the charitable foundation connected with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. Last year, the foundation paid about $40,000 for vaccinations not covered by government medical insurance.
This year, the vaccination push is starting nearly a month later than it did last year, largely because the vaccine itself took longer to make this year. Catchings said the delay means rather than wrapping up by December, vaccinations could continue into January.
A pediatrician with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, Dr. Roberta Vicari, said anti-vaccination fears have for years kept some families from getting their children protected from the seasonal flu, but the hysteria is much less now than it was in the mid-90s when, she said, three-quarters of her time was spent addressing the fears of such parents.
“I find more of the families I see now want to know the science behind all this, which I find gratifying,” Vicari said.
Vicari said she routinely hears from people who say they’ve never gotten the flu. More likely they got the flu but didn’t know it, a dangerous situation because they can still infect others, she said.
“My bet is they had it but they were asymptomatic,” Vicari said.