Elaine Darling: Student vaccines are important

Published: February 17, 2012 9:56 AM
By Elaine Darling

Elaine Darling: Student vaccines are important

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In response to "Health board president: Residents not yet aware of new vaccine requirements," Jan. 20, last year, changes were made to the state law that requires immunizations for school entry.

Beginning with the 2012-13 school year, students entering seventh grade will need to show proof of one dose of Tdap and one dose of the meningococcal vaccines. Students entering 12th grade will need to show proof of one dose of Tdap (the 7th grade dose will count for students who have had it) and one dose of meningococcal vaccine after age 16. These vaccines have been recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for some time, so many students have already received them. In fact, about half of all West Virginia teens have already had their Tdap and meningococcal vaccinations, so these teens already meet the new requirement.

The Tdap vaccine prevents tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease that can lead to severe complications and hospitalizations. Pertussis can also be fatal to infants who often contract it from unimmunized family members. Currently, there are three different outbreaks of pertussis occurring in West Virginia.

The meningococcal vaccine prevents bacterial meningitis, a disease for which adolescents and young adults are at increased risk. Meningitis is extremely dangerous. According to the CDC, 10 percent to 15 percent of those who contract meningitis die, while those who survive are often left with amputations, brain damage, nervous system damage, seizures or strokes. Therefore, the Tdap and meningococcal vaccines are very important in protecting teens and young adults from these dangerous, yet preventable, diseases.

When the change was made to add adolescent immunizations to the school immunization requirements, the West Virginia Immunization Network submitted a resolution in support of this change. This resolution was also signed by the West Virginia chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Academy of Family Physicians, Association of School Nurses, Perinatal Partnership, Primary Care Association, Public Health Association and the School-Based Health Assembly, whose members understand the positive impact that school immunization requirements have on the health of our students.

Since then, many efforts from organizations at both the state and community levels have been made to notify schools, healthcare providers, and the public of the adolescent immunization requirements. In April 2011, a memo from the state health officer was distributed to schools, health departments and providers, informing them of the changes to the school immunization requirements.

Backpack letters about the requirements were sent home to parents from the Bureau for Public Health's Division of Immunization Services. Throughout the summer, the West Virginia Immunization Network, Division of Immunization Services, the Department of Education's Office of Healthy Schools and the Marshall University School Health Technical Assistance Center worked together to develop a toolkit, consisting of customizable materials that schools and health departments could use to inform parents about the requirements.

Multiple training opportunities were held to help prepare school nurses and school-based health personnel for the requirements. In the fall, the Division of Immunization Services launched an $84,000 media campaign to inform the public of the new requirements by placing ads on television stations around the state. It also distributed posters to schools. Additionally, many schools, health departments and health-care providers have been working diligently together to inform parents about the requirements through letters, websites, inserts in report cards, automated phone systems and press releases.

Our efforts to inform the public about the requirements will continue and we will look for more ways to ensure that our message is reaching all parts of the state. We, along with our multiple partners, including local health departments and school nurses, are proud of our state law, which is one of the strongest in the nation, and we will continue to work hard to ensure that students are protected from vaccine-preventable diseases and that they are ready and healthy for their first day of school in the fall.

Darling is program manager for the West Virginia Immunization Network, a statewide coalition of more than 200 representatives from the public and private sectors who work to reduce the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases.