Flimsy protection against the flu offered by new mandate in NYC

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The New York City Board of Health voted unanimously yesterday to implement the measure they initially proposed a few months ago: requiring that the City s preschoolers and daycare center kids get the influenza vaccine (flu shots) to enable them to enter school. The measure will affect about 150,000 kids when it goes into effect next September. The reasons for this pro-public health measure are clear, as expressed by the City s Department of Health:

"Young children have a high risk of developing severe complications from influenza," the Health Department said in a statement. "One-third of children under five in New York City do not receive an annual influenza vaccination, even though the vaccine safely and effectively protects them against influenza illness. Young children often pass influenza to other children and family members, who then spread the infection to others in the community."

The flu vaccine will be added to the seven other vaccines children under 5 are required to get, including measles, whooping cough and chicken pox.

"We know that influenza is a serious illness which affects an estimated 15% to 40% of children during annual flu season," said Dr. Jay Varma, who oversees infectious diseases as deputy commissioner of the New York City Health Department, to CNN.com.

The Board of Health and the Dept. of Health pointed out the need for mandatory measures based upon prior year s unacceptably low rates of vaccine uptake, posing a danger not only to the unvaccinated kids but for their schoolmates as well:

Despite active promotion of influenza vaccination for children, coverage rates have risen slowly in New York City. As of March 26, 2013, 61.0% of children ages 6 months through 59 months received at least one dose of influenza vaccine compared to 56.7% at the same time in 2012. This still leaves nearly 4 out of every 10 young children unprotected. Furthermore, young children are at high risk of influenza-related complications and hospitalization, making this vulnerable group especially important to protect.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross had this comment: While I welcome this new initiative, I do wonder why it took this long to extend this protection to the youngest, most vulnerable schoolkids in the City? Moreover, the ease of gaining exemption from this policy makes it likely that a significant number of parents will simply opt-out of allowing their kids to be vaccinated, based on the endemic superstition and baseless fear polluting the internet from many less-than-reliable sources. See, for instance, this part of the new regulations:

Children aged from 6 months to 59 months shall be immunized each year before December 31 ¦.unless the vaccine may be detrimental to the child s health, as certified by a physician licensed to practice medicine in this state, or the parent, parents, or guardian of a child hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs which are contrary to the practices herein required....and this beauty: Decisions on exemptions will be made by an administrator at each facility on a case by case basis.

Having already heard from one such administrator, I find neither sense nor comfort in that either: A lot of problems with autism parents are very scared. I think they should have their choice, whether they want to vaccinate their child or not, said Carol Schafenberg, principal of P.S. 76 in Long Island City, to CBS News.

Also, if the City educators are going this far to protect vulnerable children from preventable contagion, I wonder why they won t extend the same benefit to sick, immunocompromised patients in the City s hospitals, where healthcare workers have no requirement whatsoever to be immunized against the flu.