Tardy chickenpox shots leave school desks vacant

VACCINATION VOID: Hundreds of elementary students sent home.

August 19, 2009 

Nearly 700 kids missed the first day of school in Anchorage on Wednesday because they did not have their chickenpox shots despite a heavy campaign by the school district to inform parents of the new state requirement for elementary school kids.

About 190 of the children didn't show up at the schools because parents knew they didn't have the shot and were still waiting to get it, district administrators said. The rest, some 500, were sent home from the school.

That's nearly one out of every 20 kids who were supposed to get vaccinated whose parents either didn't know about the new rule, simply forgot or ran out of time to get it.

At the start of every school year, school administrators expect several dozen kids across the district's 65 elementary schools to show up at school on the first day without the proper vaccinations or the paperwork to prove them.

This year, with the new requirement, the number of students not ready was extraordinary, they say.

The 700 who couldn't start school Wednesday do not include kindergartners and first-graders, who haven't begun classes yet. They start school on Tuesday. School administrators expect there will also be missed vaccinations in that group.

Only elementary school pupils must have the chickenpox, or varicella, vaccine. The vaccine was added this year to the list of others required, which are diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. All are free, paid for by the state, although private physicians usually charge an administrative fee to give the shots.

Anchorage school officials ran ads, sent several letters home with kids in the spring, and phoned parents to remind them of the new rule. It was a heavy public awareness campaign, they said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended for years that children get the chickenpox vaccine. Alaska decided two years ago to implement the requirement this year.

Abby Baker, office manager at the Anchorage Pediatric Group, one of the larger pediatric private practices in town, said her office stockpiled the vaccine for months leading up to the beginning of the school year, anticipating a run on it. Wednesday morning, they administered their last dose and had to turn away patients.

She said August is prime vaccination time every year and the office gets busy. But this year was different. "The chickenpox thing was outrageously last minute," she said.

Other doctors' offices have also been buzzing for days as procrastinators have scrambled. Some ran out of the vaccine last week.

The city's public health clinic downtown staged an additional clinic and expanded its hours to process what they expected to be a deluge of kids this week. The state assisted by dispatching its own nurses to help.

On Wednesday, after the school day had begun for the rest of the city's 15,000 elementary aged students, 300 kids were given shots at the city's clinic, said Jayson Smart, the city's deputy director of health and human services.

Meanwhile, other school districts across the state that have not started yet are gearing up for similar stalls to the first day of school. Juneau schools, which are scheduled to open Aug. 31, have been trying to alert parents with a campaign similar to Anchorage's, said spokeswoman Kristin Bartlett.

Kenai schools superintendent Steve Atwater said, "The clinics down here are going nuts." His schools open Aug. 24.

In Fairbanks, where school started Monday, 67 students were excluded from their classrooms on the first day.

Nancy Edtl, Anchorage schools director of nursing and health services, said schools can expect similar headaches in four months when the second-round of the chickenpox vaccine is required. School nurses and administrators are vigilantly keeping track of health records to stay on top of parents and remind them of when those are due, she said.

Families may opt out of vaccinations for medical or religious reasons.

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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