State scales back school flu shot program due to lack of funding

Not all schools will be offering the flu shots this year, and health experts say it’s a bad idea.

The Hawaii Department of Health says it is scaling back the Stop Flu at School program. It released the following details Thursday:

“The state’s annual school-located vaccination program, Stop Flu at School, will be offered to all elementary and intermediate public schools in Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii Counties later this year. On Oahu, the program will be made available to selected public schools. Stop Flu at School, which provides free flu shots to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will no longer be offered in private schools.

“Information packets and vaccination consent forms will be distributed to families in participating schools in early October. Vaccination clinics are scheduled to begin November 1.”

The program will be offered to approximately 90 Oahu public schools which in previous years had at least 40 percent of their student enrollment participating in the Department of Education’s Free and Reduced-Price Meal Program. Officials did not specify which schools would get the program.

Dr. Virginia Pressler, the department’s director, said scaling back the program’s offerings was not a decision taken lightly.

“After careful consideration, we understood it was critical to prioritize eligible schools based on students with the greatest need for assistance, which allowed us to maximize the benefit to the public while utilizing the limited funds and resources available,” she said.

In the past few years, the health department has had its staff and resources stretched thin from outbreaks such as hepatitis A, Zika, rat lungworm, and mumps.

State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park says the department has had to put a higher priority on those outbreaks.

“Our first priority is protecting the public’s health, so if there’s an outbreak, we’ve got to focus on that, so that could hurt a program like Stop Flu at School if you’ve got the same staff that are running it,” Park explained. “We need to protect us. That means monitoring for diseases. That means investigating when there are diseases of concern out there. We can’t just drop that to put on a program, as important as it is.”

Park says the federal government has also cut funding the state used for the program.

The hope is that partnerships with private companies may help cover the cost of getting the program back up and running in the future.

Until then, health experts say it will mean more sick children and adults this year.

Free flu shots have been given at schools for the past 10 years. More than 65,000 students participate each year, ages five to 13 years old.

Prior to Thursday’s announcement, KHON2 had been pressing the DOH for more specifics on what would happen to the Stop Flu at School program.

In a statement, the department told us it “is coordinating with (the Department of Education) to determine statewide public school participation in the program for 2017-2018 flu season… DOH intends to resume the program this fall with some modifications due to funding reductions and limited resources.”

“Pediatricians and all of us have been surprised by the announcement,” said Dr. Marian Melish, a pediatrician at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.

“I’m concerned that we will have more influenza circulating among school children, and this will have a definite effect on the amount of influenza that is circulating among adults,” she said.

Melish adds that studies show that vaccinating children helps prevent children and adults from getting sick.

“I have been watching carefully many years when there has been a lot of influenza on the mainland, we have been spared and had relatively mild years,” Melish said.

While the cost of the vaccine is covered by medical insurance, DOH says the program costs the state $2 million per year.

KHON2 reached out to state Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, who says it’s worth keeping the program intact.

“It’s going to cost more by having a sicker community than with these vaccinations, so I would recommend that we highly subsidize the vaccinations if need be,” Mizuno said. “(It) needs to be a high priority. This is health.”

Sen. Jill Tokuda, former Senate Ways and Means chairwoman, says the Legislature might have been able to help if it had been informed.

“I think we would rather have known at the time we were going through session that this program would have been cut in some of our schools and been able to prioritize that against all the other decisions we were going through,” she said.

The DOH says it’s too late to do anything about it this year, but there is hope that flu shots will again be offered in all schools next year.

In the meantime, parents are advised to take their kids to the doctor or a pharmacy for their flu shot.

In addition to vaccination for everyone ages 6 months and older, DOH recommends other flu prevention strategies, which include staying home when sick, covering coughs and sneezes, and washing hands frequently.

Click here for more information about the flu.

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