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Experts: Vaccines part of the arsenal for arming kids for back-to-school


Time is winding down for students to get vaccinations before returning to school later this month.

Medical professionals remind parents to be sure their children have mandatory vaccinations to safeguard their health and comply with school district requirements. They recommend parents call their children’s doctors to make arrangements for vaccinations.

The first day of class for students in the White Hall, Pine Bluff, Dollarway and Watson Chapel school districts is Monday, Aug. 18. Southeast Arkansas College will also begin classes on Monday, Aug. 18, and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff will start its semester on Monday, Aug. 25.

Students are advised to receive vaccinations that are required in some cases to protect against diseases in accordance with recommendations from the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices.

The Arkansas Board of Health makes recommendations based on the Advisory Committee, which is part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, medical director for immunizations at the Arkansas Department of Health. Students who receive all the recommended vaccinations per the advisory committee meet the Arkansas Board of Health requirements to attend school, she said.

Adolescent boys and girls should receive the vaccination against HPV at age 11 in accordance with the advisory committee guidelines, Dillaha said. Some people incorrectly believe that the HPV vaccination is a pretext for adolescents to become sexually active, Dillaha said. But this camp of people are furthering falsehoods, she said.

“One controversy surrounding HPV is due to the fact the virus is sexually transmitted. But the scientific studies have not confirmed the fear of encouraging [sexual activity],” Dillaha said. “We do not know when our children will become sexually active. …Yet the earlier you give the vaccine, the better the immune response.”

The HPV vaccine is a series of three shots administered over months, she said. The shots protect against cervical cancer in females and throat cancer, genital warts and rectal cancer in both sexes, Dillaha said.

College students may also get the HPV vaccination, because a person needs to have the vaccination before being exposed to any infectious virus, she said.

Arkansas university students must receive the meningococcal vaccination to protect against meningitis for the first time this year, said Dr. Gary Wheeler, the medical director of the infectious disease branch at the Arkansas Department of Health. Meningitis is fatal, and outbreaks have occurred at universities in other states and on army barracks because of people living in close proximity, he said.

About half of children in Arkansas receive vaccinations through the Vaccines for Children program, a federally funded program that provides these vaccinations to children who would not otherwise get them, he said. These children are covered through ARKids parts A and B, Wheeler said.

“The Health Department covers the payment for eligible children who are getting the recommended vaccines,” Wheeler said. “If enough people are immunized, then diseases will be less likely to spread. In my opinion, it is every citizen’s duty to get vaccinated because it is cost-effective.”

The advisory committee recommends children get the following vaccinations: BCG, DTap, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Hib, Hib and DTP, HPV, influenza, Japanese encephalitis, MMR, MMRV, meningococcal, pneumococcal, polio, rabies, rotavirus, smallpox, tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)/td, typhoid, varicella, yellow fever and shingles.

“We have been fortunate in Arkansas not to have any big outbreaks of measles, mumps or chickenpox,” Wheeler said.

An Arkansas college student can get the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine through the Vaccines for Kids program, Wheeler said. The department will bill a college student’s insurance company, he said. An uninsured college student would be billed $5, he said.

Insurance companies cover all the recommended vaccinations, Wheeler said.

The influenza virus is also life-threatening, yet people do not realize the importance of a vaccination against it, Wheeler said. Although the advisory committee does not list influenza, Wheeler recommends children and adults see their doctor.

“We have a lot of influenza activity with a focus on schools: elementary, middle and high school,” he said. “We do not have any specific programs for college students. We advertise that all people get a flu vaccine.”

Parents must know their children’s health conditions and make decisions accordingly. Medical professionals issue recommendations based on the majority of people. However, a person with certain illness should not get certain vaccinations.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website lists the vaccine schedule in detail and allows people to enter health information at www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html. Some students may have health conditions that require other vaccinations, Dillaha said.

“If you have had chickenpox and your doctor can verify it, then you do not have to get the vaccine,” Dillaha said. “Some children should not receive every vaccine, depending on their health condition.”

In addition, there is an official philosophical exemption that allows students to attend school without certain vaccinations, she said.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a problem in Arkansas, with 466 cases reported last year, Dillaha said.

“There have been changes to school attendance requirements for students in kindergarten to 12th grade,” she said.” We are seeing a decrease in pertussis among 12- and 13-year-olds. But we are seeing an increase in pertussis among 10- and 11-year-old children.”

As a result, the advisory committee recommends all children get the TDAP shot by age 11, she said.

“We are hoping this will bring down the number of cases of pertussis in that age group,” Dillaha said.

People may call their primary care doctor to learn the availability of a particular vaccination and the appropriateness relative to their child, she said.

Healthcare Plus, a medical group in Pine Bluff, administers the tetanus shot and meningococcal vaccination, office manager Heather Janway said. She said she expects to see an influx of children coming to the clinic before they return to school.

“Junior high kids need these shots,” Janway said. “We have seen only a handful of kids so far but we anticipate these numbers to increase.”