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USF Researcher Finds Sometimes Low-Tech Approach Pays Off When It Comes To Immunizations

ROBYN BECK / AFP/Getty Images
Public school student Julio Valenzuela, 11, grimaces as he gets a vaccination before the start of the school in Lynnwood, Calif., earlier this year. Vaccines are required for school attendance.

In a world increasingly dominated by social media and cell phones, sometimes a simple letter home can make a difference when it comes to making sure students have their important immunizations.

That's the finding of research conducted by USF College of Public Health’s Dr. Jill Roberts, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.

Roberts' research, “An Evidence-Based Project Demonstrating Increased School Immunization Compliance Following a School Nurse-Initiated Vaccine Compliance Strategy,” was recently published in The Journal of School Nursing.

Her work looked specifically at a Northern Indiana high school with a high migrant population and poverty level. Before Roberts started her work, about a third of the students had not received mandatory immunizations for diseases like measles and whooping cough.

"The underlying reason is people simply didn't know," Roberts said. "They didn't know that their children missed vaccinations, they didn't know about vaccinations that were necessary for this age group. It was simply an issue of getting the knowledge out there."

But because many of the parents had little to no access to social media or email, Roberts used a low-tech approach to reach them.

"The easiest thing to do is send a note home with a student. So we did an initial note just identifying that a student was missing vaccinations," Roberts said.

"Once we didn't get a response to the first note, we sent a second note home and that note had information from the Health Department," she continued. "It explained in detail why the vaccines were important and where the people could get the vaccinations."

If there was still no response, the third step in the process included a more personal touch.

"We would actually go ahead and call the home or we would send a resource officer out to the home to speak with the parents," Roberts said.

By taking these three steps and educating the parents, the immunization level climbed from 66 percent to almost full compliance of 100 percent.

But what can be done about students whose parents choose not to get their children vaccinated?

Roberts said these "vaccine-hesitant" groups could be influenced by two things: a trusted student nurse reaching out to these families to provide information and letting them know the consequences of not vaccinating.

"So if you have a student that goes to school knowingly unvaccinated and there's a case in that school of a vaccine-preventable disease, that student is excluded," Roberts said. "That means they cannot come to school for 30 days."

"So once you get that knowledge out there to the parent, and say, 'You know, if this happens, your kid is at a high risk, we're going to take them out of the school system for 30 days,'" Roberts explained. "Then the parent starts to think more, 'Okay, then this is a serious risk and what will we do if my child misses 30 days of school?'"

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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