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Florida flu vaccination program shows significant impact

In an average year, approximately 2,300 people in Florida die from the flu and 7,300 are hospitalized for it. This current flu season, which began last fall, is shaping up to be worse. According to the Florida Department of Health, over 3,000 of the state's residents have died from "pneumonia and influenza" so far.

Aside from the obvious human toll, the virus takes an economic toll on the state. It's been estimated that the state loses $540 million during the average flu season in lost wages and other costs.

Despite these staggering numbers, Florida ranked last in flu vaccinations two years ago, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just over one-third of our residents received flu shots.

Among those most likely to spread the virus are school-age children. One doctoral student at the University of Florida's College of Public Health referred to kids as "super spreaders." They not only spread it to other students but to family members. Some data indicates that if flu could be controlled among children, the entire community would benefit.

A model program was started in Alachua County in 2006 to attempt to curtail the spread of the virus by children. The county had a low vaccination rate. Parents' unwillingness to have their children vaccinated, according to the doctoral student who started the program, had less to do with a fear of vaccinations than concern about the cost and inability to understand the consent form.

A public relations campaign helped. From 2011 to 2013, about half of children between 5 and 17 years old were vaccinated. The impact was profound. The rates of flu among children in the county's schools dropped by 79 percent.

If a program like this could be implemented statewide, the impact on flu rates could be significant. However, money is a big issue. Funds for the Alachua County program came from community organizations and grants.

Of course, whether parents decide to vaccinate their children for the flu or not is up to them. However, as we have seen with the recent measles outbreak, the decision by a minority of parents not to vaccinate their children can have a serious impact on many others. As with any vaccination, it's always essential to consult a trusted doctor. He or she can advise you what is best based on your own history and any current medical conditions.

Source: The Miami Herald, "Fred Grimm: With 3,000 Florida flu deaths this season, maybe it’s time to panic" Fred Grimm, Jan. 28, 2015

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