The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is urging parents to make sure their children receive the flu vaccine as soon as possible. The AAP flu vaccine recommendation comes in the wake of a particularly deadly 2017-2018 flu season in which 179 children died, only 80 percent of whom were vaccinated. While predictions suggest this year’s flu season will not be as deadly as last year’s, the number of childhood deaths from flu could easily be curbed by a simple, common-sense measure: Public schools should require children receive flu vaccinations.
Parents of school-aged kids understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the school year is almost perfectly timed with the flu season. We are essentially sending children into a human petri dish where close quarters and poor hygiene habits make it incredibly easy for a flu virus to hop from child to child. When the child comes home, if there are no precautions in place, the virus can then be passed to their family members. Some of those family members represent the most vulnerable — siblings who aren’t old enough to attend school or elderly individuals with poor health.
All of this explains why pediatricians so vociferously urge parents to get kids vaccinated. But too often parents have selective listening when it comes to doctor recommendations. So what’s more compelling than a pediatrician? A school district that can bar kids from class should they fail to meet basic requirements. That’s the kind of thing that can put real, actionable fear into parents. Consider the scores of teens who are carted to the doctor for required pre-sports physicals, or think of the vaccination requirements that are already in place.
So why not have the same requirement for the flu vaccine? One barrier is the burden of the annual shot. Unlike measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines, the flu vaccine requires an annual shot, forever. In the face of 179 dead children or more (358 children died from influenza in 2009, one of the worst seasons on record), this complaint seems thin.
The bigger barrier is the fact that the school year starts, on average, a week earlier than the flu vaccine is available. That’s because pathologists need time to understand which iteration of the virus the flu vaccine should be built for. In essence, the problem is one of poor timing.
The solution would involve moving the start of school back a week to accommodate the release of the vaccine. That might mean the school year is extended for a week on the other side of the school year but does that really matter in the face of saving children’s lives?
Besides, if the Department of Education creates vaccination requirements, it might spur the Centers for Disease Control to try and find ways to identify the annual flu strains earlier. And, if the vaccination were a government mandate for school children, there would also likely be a strong argument for programs that would provide the vaccine free of charge to low-income families. That in and of itself would ensure the vaccination of children who now remain unvaccinated because their parents have neither the money or time to go to a clinic.
Every year, the flu is responsible for kids missing out on many hours of education and adults missing out on many hours of work. So why not be proactive and make a consistent policy: kids are vaccinated or they aren’t allowed in school. Period.