A Clemson University researcher and a researcher from Yale University have produced a report on the creation of a better policy for vaccinating the general population against seasonal flu and the new H1N1 or “swine flu.”The Centers of Disease Control already have their rules about that. Flu vaccinations are recommended for children under age 5 and for seasonal flu, people over age 50. And in the last two years, the category of older children has been added, age 5 to 19.
Dr. Jan Medlock is a mathematician at Clemson. He says the vaccines would be better used to prevent transmission within schools and the parents of students, who then spread the flu to the rest of the population.
So Medlock advocates vaccinating children who are actually in school, rather than those under five, as well as adults in their thirties, who are likely to be parents.
Medlock acknowledges that the CDC recommendations have been changing in recent years, particularly due to the new H1N1 strain, and are moving in the right direction.
The research was published in today’s edition of “Science Express.” It was funded by a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
The World Health Organization has announced the possibility of shortfalls in the production of H1N1 vaccines this year due to the slow growth of the virus cultured in chicken eggs. Medlock says when vaccine availability is limited or its effectiveness is low, it’s extremely important to vaccinate the right people.
Medlock says regardless of whether the cutoff age for kids is 17 or 23, they should be vaccinated because they typically are essential in spreading the virus around. “Kids interact with other kids at school then bring it home to their parents, and their grandparents, who are at risk of death from seasonal flu. So if you vaccinate those in school, you can protect the grandparents without vaccinating them directly.”
But why did the National Science Foundation give researchers such a large grant to determine what many people would say is obvious, that viruses spread fastest among school children and their parents?
Defending the grant, Dr. Medlock says the basic information is nothing new. But he says it’s important to have scientific evidence, since the decision of who to give vaccines to is an important one, especially when there is a shortage of vaccines, as there will be when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available this fall. “We’ve known this for a long time. And there are studies like the one in Japan where they vaccinated school children then watched the incidence of flu go way down in the elderly.”
So why has the CDC not developed a better policy of who to vaccinate first? Medlock says policy writers in the government-run CDC have a tendency to, first of all, attempt to reduce the number of deaths caused by a disease, so they looked to the population segments who were most likely to die if they get sick. “That’s why they recommend that people at the greatest risk of dieing get vaccinated. Our contribution has been to say however you measure the outcome, whether it’s death of economic costs, it’s still optimal to vaccinate students.”
Medlock says directing vaccine where it will stop the spread of disease is called “heard immunity” meaning that by stopping the spread of disease within any population, you save everyone from the risk of catching it.