For the third year running, flu vaccines will be available for free at all Palm Beach County public schools, but here’s the sting: the child-preferred nasal spray won’t be an option. Students will have to roll up their sleeves for an old-school shot.
The CDC’s advisory panel made that decision after reviewing the vaccine’s apparently abysmal track record in last winter’s flu season.
According to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, FluMist’s efficacy rate among children ages 2 to 17 was about 3 percent, in other words it offered no protective benefit at all, the CDC reported. By comparison, a regular flu shot last winter was effective against the virus 63 percent of the time.
Health and school officials aim to begin inoculating students with signed permission slips on Palm Beach County campuses from Oct. 10 through Nov. 1.
Parents should keep an eye out for consent forms coming home with their children – some schools sent them as early as the first week of school, others schools should be doing so now, said Tim O’Connor, spokesman for the county’s health department. Parents can call their school if a backpack search doesn’t turn one up.
Until now, FluMist was the weapon of choice in the district’s free vaccine program for several years.
The nasal spray was developed by a University of Michigan professor and approved by the FDA in 2003.
“I feel good. I feel in a sense that I have accomplished my life’s dream,” Hunein “John” Maassab said, according to the university’s accompanying press release that year. “I spent all my lifetime developing this vaccine.”
His success no doubt pleased millions of parents with needle-averse children – and plenty of adults too.
The CDC’s experts also looked favorably on the mist.
In 2014, the advisory panel named FluMist the preferred alternative flu vaccine for children after studies suggested that for kids ages 2-8, a dose of FluMist up the nose beat a needle in the arm in effectiveness.
FluMist is what’s called a live attenuated vaccine which means it’s made from weakened live virus but doesn’t give you the flu. Instead it spurs your immune system to rally a defense that comes in handy when you are exposed to the real thing. Alternately, a flu shot contains dead virus to trigger the same reaction.
But FluMist’s track record hasn’t been consistent. Data from more than one previous flu season show the spray did poorly in more than one past season. The injectable vaccine also is not infallible. The strains of flu virus are always changing and scientists are left to make their best guesses as to which three or four strains will strike in an upcoming season.
Researchers are working now to figure out why FluMist fell short.
Meanwhile, in schools, health experts are faced with another challenge: getting more students vaccinated.
The CDC recommends all children older than 6 months be vaccinated against the flu, also known as influenza. The agency also reports that about 60 percent of the nation’s children actually get those vaccines – among them teens have the lowest rate at under half.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can be mild or lethal, particularly to te very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems.
For the third year, the state health department in Palm Beach County and the school district will partner with Healthy Schools LLC, a company founded by former Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Tony Boselli, to offer free vaccines at all of the county’s public schools – both traditional and charter.
Healthy Schools works with various insurance companies and Medicaid to cover the cost of the vaccines. Before the Healthy Schools partnership, local health and education officials scraped together federal grants and local money to bring flu shots to schools – but the high cost meant efforts never reached all of the county’s schools just some of the poorest ones, said Tim O’Connor, spokesman for the health department.
Even with this new partnership, the vaccine’s reach has peaked at about 20 percent of the school population, O’Connor said.
“It’s pretty consistent. We were hoping that the wider range would improve that,” O’Connor said. It’s possible that the numbers were held down by the use of FluMist. “There was some push back on FluMist because it was a live vaccine.”