- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Students in Knoxville, Tenn., may hold a key to preventing millions of deaths worldwide, should the avian flu become a pandemic.

About 53,000 students in the Knox County school district are being enlisted for an initiative that might help determine whether an aggressive flu vaccination program among children can reduce the spread of the virus around the world.

The flu shot shortage last year created a local epidemic that forced Knoxville schools to close for two days.

Health officials on Monday began providing MedImmune Inc.’s inhaled FluMist vaccine free to students in the school system whose parents agree to participate.

If inoculating children can slow the spread of annual influenza among adults, the approach might provide a model for controlling an outbreak of bird flu, too.

“Children, especially schoolchildren, tend to be introducers of influenza in families,” said Ira Longini, a researcher at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. “When you vaccinate children, you disconnect the pathways of transmission.”

Health officials are searching for ways to thwart a global pandemic if the H5N1 virus spreading among birds becomes contagious in humans. Since December 2003, the avian flu has infected 117 persons in Southeast Asia who have come into contact with sickened poultry, and 60 have died. Concerns have heightened as signs of H5N1 infection have appeared in birds in Turkey, Romania and Greece.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta will discuss at a Monday-Tuesday meeting the importance of vaccinating children as a way to thwart the virus.

MedImmune, a Gaithersburg drug maker, is offering FluMist free to many schools this season as part of a marketing campaign.

The nasal spray version of the flu vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2003. Sales last year accounted for less than 3 percent of flu vaccines.

Studies in Japan, Michigan and Texas have showed that vaccinating schoolchildren can keep flu from spreading to the old and sick.

Researchers are watching the Knox County program and similar ones in Montgomery County, Pa., and Calvert County, Md., to determine whether schools can conduct mass flu vaccinations that might stem the spread of the virus.

U.S. government advisory groups have ruled there isn’t enough data to add schoolchildren to the list of people — including the elderly and infirm — who should be vaccinated for influenza, said Dr. Ray Strikas, the CDC’s associate director of adult immunization.

“There’s a point of debate about whether this would be useful,” he said.

Baylor College of Medicine researchers have been conducting mass flu vaccinations in Temple and Belton, Texas, students since 1997.

Focusing vaccinations on high-risk people hasn’t reduced sickness and deaths from flu, said Pedro Piedra, a virologist and pediatrician who leads the study.

“How can we control pandemic influenza if we can’t control annual influenza?” he said.

Last flu season, teacher and student absences put Knoxville’s South Doyle Middle School about a week behind its academic schedule, said Jeanna Swan-Cole, the school’s principal.

More than a third of the school’s 400 eighth-graders were absent the day before a state writing assessment, and at least 40 flu-sickened children came to school to take it, she said.

“As soon as they’d finish, their parents took them home because the children were so weak,” she said. “The custodians ended up cleaning quite a bit of vomit.”

After contamination at Chiron Corp.’s Liverpool, England, factory wiped out almost half the U.S. vaccine supply last year, all available vaccine went to protecting the elderly, children ages 6 to 23 months, and those with chronic health conditions.

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