School-based flu vaccine program proves to be an effective public health tool, study finds

Photo of Administering Flu Vaccine
Government of Prince Edward Island/Creative Commons
The study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of Oakland Unified School District’s 'Shoo the Flu' program, which provides free flu vaccinations at elementary and K-8 schools throughout Oakland and at three elementary schools in Castro Valley every fall. (Photo by Government of Prince Edward Island under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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In a study, UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers found vaccinating elementary school-age children against the flu reduces influenza-related hospitalization rates for all community members.

The study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of Oakland Unified School District’s “Shoo the Flu” program. Shoo the Flu is a community-based initiative that provides free flu vaccinations at elementary and K-8 schools throughout Oakland and at three elementary schools in Castro Valley every fall.

According to lead author Jade Benjamin-Chung, children are “superspreaders” of the flu, meaning they spread the flu to their communities more easily than other subsets of the population.

“They are the majority spreaders of the influenza virus,” Benjamin-Chung said. “If we can increase coverage for flu shots in kids, they will be less likely to spread the flu to the community and to the people they come in contact with.”

Children are especially susceptible to spreading infectious respiratory and fecal-oral diseases, according to study co-author Arthur Reingold. This is due, in part, to children touching each other and common surfaces while having lower hygiene standards than adults, Reingold added.

Benjamin-Chung said this study was unique because it evaluated a citywide program. She said programs like Shoo the Flu offer a promising strategy for reducing flu hospitalizations throughout the community.

The Shoo the Flu program’s fourth year, 2017-18, was associated with 37 fewer flu-related hospitalizations per 100,000 non-elementary school-age community members, according to a UC Berkeley School of Public Health press release. Furthermore, there were 160 fewer flu-related hospitalizations per 100,000 elderly adults associated with the program.

In the same year, increased vaccination rates were also associated with fewer illness-related absences per 100 school days during the flu season, according to the press release.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Benjamin-Chung said programs such as Shoo the Flu are “more important than ever” for community health and safety.

“We know that around this time of year there are increased rates of hospitalization (from the influenza virus),” Benjamin-Chung said. “The chance of having a ‘twindemic’ might mean that health care resources are not able to respond to either virus in the community.”

In light of the possibility of a severe flu season during the coronavirus pandemic, dubbed “twindemic,” the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, is requiring that all UC students, faculty and staff receive flu vaccines before November.

UCOP’s temporary executive order will be revisited next flu season, according to UCOP spokesperson Heather Harper.

“Dual outbreaks of seasonal influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses … has the potential to create a serious health risk to individual patients as well as to endanger the ability of our health care personnel and systems to effectively treat surges of ill patients,” Harper said in an email.

Contact Eric Rogers at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eric_rogers_dc.