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Flu Death of Maine School Child Prompts Vaccination Push
12/18/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Last week, a school-aged child from central Maine died from the flu. It's the first pediatric flu death this season, and the Maine Center for Disease Control is urging Mainers to get vaccinated. Patty Wight reports on Maine's overall immunization rates and the challenges to increasing them.

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Pediatric flu deaths are uncommon in Maine, says state CDC Director Dr. Sheila Pinette. Typically the flu can be fatal in the elderly or those with compromised health, but this recent case involved a child in elementary school who was believed to be healthy before contracting the virus.

"The most important thing is that we grieve for the family, and we want to make sure that families recognize that flu is preventable and we can't prevent all complications that go with it," Pinette says. "And sometimes that's what happens, particularly in this case."

Pinette says nearly everyone should get vaccinated against the flu, unless there's an underlying medical reason. That's an expansion from previous CDC recommendations that focused on the young, the elderly, and health care workers.

Pinette says already this season there have been 18 flu outbreaks in Maine. Last year, there were just 10, and Pinette says more Mainers should be vaccinating. "Last year, I think the adult population was in the 40th, 45th percentile - something like that - for adults."

Maine's overall immunization rates have peaked and dipped over the years. In the mid-'90s, the state had one of the highest rates in the nation, largely because it provided vaccines to children at no charge. But funding issues put an end to that program, and the rate plummeted.

But recently, Maine's overall immunization rate crept just above the national average, says Dr. Larry Losey. "Still not near the top, but we're getting there."

Losey is a pediatrician in Brunswick, and a member of the Maine Immunization Coalition. He credits the boost to another state program that provides free vaccines to children, launched last January. But the goal is to immunize all eligible Maine kinds and that's beena challenge, for reasons other than cost.

Cassandra Grantham is program manager for MaineHealth's Childhood Immunization Program. "I think another issue is really clinicians are struggling with making sure that they're offering the best process for parents, really, to get their immunizations," she says. "So, you know, if you bring in a sibling with a child who is going in for the visit, maybe that sibling might be behind, and could that provider check on that sibling's vaccinations?"

For some diseases, like pertussis - commonly known as whooping cough - it's older children that tend to be at risk because they need boosters. Electronic medical records are expected to help track who needs vaccinations. But there's one other challenge that's particularly difficult, says Grantham. "There is a lot of public misperception, I think, circulating around vaccines."

Maine is one of 20 states that allow immunization exemptions for philosophical reasons. Naturopathic doctor Sara Ackerly from Topsham says vaccines have significantly reduced the incidence of many infectious diseases.

"So there are definitely good reasons to vaccinate, and there are, you know, concerns with the vaccinations because of the way that they alter and change the immune system's ability to grow and develop," Ackerly says.

Ackerly says while there is no clear causal link between vaccines and, say, developmental disorders, some parents are wary of immunizing their kids because they're worried about long-term effects.

"I think that's the bigger, wider concern: that you really don't know if there is a potential for a child to develop a reaction to vaccination," Ackerly says. "And we don't have a good way of being able to screen children to see who will and won't react."

"The problem is, with a scientific background, I cannot tell a mother, 'This vaccine will not harm your child,'" says pediatrician Larry Losey. "We need to understand that there is a tiny risk from that. There is a risk of driving to the doctor's office, and that risk is significant. People get in car accidents all the time. And we tend to ignore that, and we worry about the one-in-a-million chance of some bizarre, unusual reaction occurring."

While there may not be consensus about who should get vaccines, doctors do agree that extra precautions should be taken around the holidays, when families travel and come together. At the very least, wash hands frequently and cough into your shoulder, if not update your immunizations. As Losey says, it's not only gifts that are given at this time of year.


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