CHARLES TOWN – Health experts nationwide have long fretted over teens and preteens’ tendency to skip crucial immunizations that can keep them safe from meningitis and other potentially deadly infections, and now school officials here have an additional challenge.
Starting with the new school year, West Virginia schools will begin to enforce even tougher immunization requirements for seventh- and 12-graders.
“This is so important – we are working hard to get out the word to all our parents,” said Gail Woods, the media relations director for Jefferson County Schools.
By the time that classes resume in late August, state law mandates that all children entering Grades 7 and 12 show be immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and meningococcal disease.
Rebecca King, a nurse by training and a coordinator in the state Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools in Charleston, said the issue literally can be one of life and death.
“Particularly with bacterial meningitis, the possibility of recovery is slim – we don’t want our young people going off to college and starting off their adult lives and being susceptible to that,” King said.
In Berkeley County, parents of students who will be affected are being asked to bring proof of updated immunizations to school by April 20. In Jefferson County, no deadline has been set but parents are encouraged to turn in the information “as soon as possible,” according to Woods.
King said that across West Virginia, about half of the affected students already have met the new requirement. “We’ll be working toward the end of this school year to get the message out to those who haven’t complied, to make sure they know what’s happening. We don’t want to see students turned away once classes start in the fall.”
In the Panhandle and elsewhere in West Virginia, officials are using billboards, posters, ads and a variety of other means to alert parents and teenagers to the new requirements, King said.
Ensuring that teens and preteens are fully immunized is an issue that deserves national attention, according to Dr. Paul A. Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Vaccines and Teens,” a recently updated information guide that Offit helped to put together, is designed to provide information for parents and physicians to detail the most up-to-date recommendations and information about critical immunizations for older children.
According to a news release from the CDC, overall vaccination rates are improving among children ages 11-19, but many adolescents and teens still are not protected from diseases such as pertussis, meningococcal meningitis and human papillomavirus.
“This age group is particularly susceptible to certain infections for a variety of reasons,” Offit in a news release. “Immunity provided by some of those early childhood vaccinations is fading, and older children become susceptible again to diptheria, tetanus and pertussis.
“Additionally, teens and adolescents are developing new social patterns. Sleepaway camps, dorm rooms, dating and night clubs are all exciting parts of growing up, but are also situations that increase the risk of potentially life-threatening infections like meningococcus and HPV.”
Some 30 to 50 percent of adolescents are still missing at least one of the recommended critical vaccines for ages 11 to 12, the CDC found after a national survey of 13- to 17-year-olds.
The report, released in August, showed that many adolescents are lacking immunizations including meningococcal vaccine; tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) booster vaccine; and the three-dose human papillomavirus vaccine.
According to the CDC, one reason for lower vaccination rates among adolescents is that many of recommendations are relatively new, having become the recommendation only within the last few years.
Also, the CDC notes, teens and preteens see their doctors less often than any other age group, so physicians have fewer opportunities to counsel parents on the recommended immunizations for older children.
The CDC along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Medical Association and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine all recommend that children at 11 or 12 have a routine healthcare visit that includes a vaccination update.
Officials say that adolescents who are not vaccinated at this age should have their vaccines brought up-to-date as soon as possible.
To prepare for the new requirements, Jefferson County is making special efforts to get vaccines updated for students who don’t have a regular physician. Special clinics have been set up this month
In West Virginia, the issue of immunizations has been particularly in the spotlight since November when the U.S. Supreme Court opted to not hear the case of a Mingo County mother who wanted her daughter exempted from immunization requirements for religious reasons.
In the case Jennifer Workman vs. the Mingo County Board of Education, the mother filed suit against the school board to keep her daughter from receiving state-mandated vaccinations.
By electing not to hear the case, the Supreme Court allowed to stand the earlier ruling of U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, who found the youngster needed to be immunized before enrolling in public school.
West Virginia is one of the few states where religious exemptions to vaccinations are not allowed. The more children who are immunized, the smaller the chance that an outbreak of a communicable disease will occur, King explained.
“You have in the general population people who are elderly, children who are medically fragile, people who cannot get vaccinations for medical reasons,” King said. “We want as many kids who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated.”
King said some schools may set up on-site vaccination clinics. “That’s the next step that some counties will be looking at,” she said. “Students would need to bring consent from their parents, of course, but in Kanawha County officials from the health department are planning to come right to the schools to administer the vaccines.”
In Jefferson County, students with no health care provider may contact the Jefferson County Health Department at 304-728-8416. Special clinics have been set for this month and for May. For more on the county’s immunization program, parents may call Lisa Carper, coordinator of Student Support Services, at 304-728-9235.
Other immunization resources include the West Virginia Division of Immunization Services (800-642-3634) or the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (www.chop.edu/service/vaccine-education-center/home.html).[/cleeng_content]