UF professor wins national award for flu vaccination efforts
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has selected Dr. Parker Small, a University of Florida emeritus professor of pediatrics, as the state’s first “Children’s Immunization Champion” for his leadership in a highly successful campaign to deliver nasal-spray flu vaccinations to students in Alachua County schools.
The CDC Childhood Immunization Champion Award, given jointly by the CDC and the CDC Foundation, honors those “who are doing an exemplary job or going above and beyond to promote or foster childhood immunizations in their communities,” according to the CDC website. This year, the first that the award has been given, 39 people around the country are recognized as CDC Childhood Immunization Champions.
School-based flu vaccine programs are considered by the CDC to be a force multiplier in protecting communities from the spread of seasonal flu viruses that hospitalize more than 200,000 people annually nationwide. For five years, Small, 79, has led a communitywide volunteer program to deliver that protective power to Alachua County residents. The effort is estimated to have saved residents millions of dollars in lost wages and medical expenses.
“Studies show that immunizing 20 percent of Florida’s children against the flu is more protective for the elderly than immunizing 90 percent of the elderly,” said Small, a member of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute who began working at UF in 1966.
“Schools are virus exchange systems,” he said. “And children are super-spreaders when it comes to the flu.” That’s because a child infected with the virus is contagious longer and spreads it more widely than an adult who is sick with the same virus.
Small said that what he calls the “flu team” would like to find a way to bring similar programs to schools in other counties, but funding is the key. In 2009, when federal stimulus funds were available, about half of Florida’s 67 counties had school-based vaccination programs. But in 2011, only Alachua and Levy counties were able to do it.
In many communities, children do not receive flu vaccines because they require a health clinic or doctor office visit, he said. School vaccine programs, on the other hand, are a convenient delivery system for parents and providers alike, and the service is free.
Small and his colleagues began the school-based vaccine program in 2006 using money from the Children’s Miracle Network, which is administered by UF’s department of pediatrics, and vaccines donated by MedImmune. For the last three years the program has been funded by CHOICES, a health services program offered by the Alachua County Board of Commissioners designed to help uninsured county residents, through the one-quarter-cent health care sales tax approved by voters in 2004. However, that tax expired at the end of last year. As a result, the Alachua County flu team is looking for a new source of funding.
Parker estimated that expanding school-based immunization programs throughout Florida could save the state’s health insurance industry $50 million to $100 million each year.
“This is a great opportunity for the insurance industry to both protect its clients and save money,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeking their help to spread our award-winning program throughout our state.”
It’s just the sort of advocacy that the Childhood Immunization Champion Award is intended to recognize, according to state department of health officials who nominated Small for the award. In an announcement about Small’s award, Charles H. Alexander, chief of the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Immunization, described Small as “an inspiration to all of us who care passionately about children’s health in Florida.”