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Ouch! Needles are hurting flu vaccination clinics at schools

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Izzy Gutierrez took time off from his job at an auto parts store on Wednesday to bolster the courage of his 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, who was nervous about getting an injection flu vaccination this year.

For years, Samantha and thousands of other New Mexico children have received a painless nasal vaccine at school each fall.

But in June, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against using the nasal spray, also known by the brand name FluMist, based on evidence that injectable vaccine offers better protection.

As a result, fewer schools have agreed to sponsor school-based flu vaccine clinics this fall, and the number of New Mexico kids vaccinated at school is expected to decline by half or more from the 2015 tally, a program manager estimated.

“Because it’s the actual shot and not the (FluMist), she’s nervous,” said Gutierrez, who stood by his tearful daughter in the McCollum Elementary School library Wednesday while she received the injection.

The nasal spray had never caused anxiety for Samantha, her father said. “As soon as we got the letter saying they weren’t doing the (FluMist), she didn’t want to do it.”

This year, only 57 Albuquerque Public Schools have chosen to offer flu clinics, down from 91 schools in 2015, said Christine Long, resource nurse for APS.

The district is allowing parents to accompany their skittish children to the clinics this year, she said.

At the McCollum Elementary clinic, some of the 45 children who received flu shots put on a brave face and took the shots without complaint. Others cried and required assurances from University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy students who gave the shots.

The CDC ban on FluMist has delivered a setback for the School Kids Influenza Immunization Program which was launched in 2008 at 70 New Mexico schools. The SKIIP program expanded for six years, providing flu vaccinations for about 48,000 New Mexico children in fall 2014. Health officials have credited the program for New Mexico’s high rate of childhood flu vaccinations.

During the 2014-15 flu season, 69 percent of New Mexico children ages 5 to 12 received a flu vaccine, compared with a nationwide rate of 62 percent, according to CDC data.

But in fall 2015, production delays of FluMist reduced the number of flu vaccinations to about 33,000.

Some school districts, including Los Lunas Public Schools, opted out of the voluntary program this year, said Anna Pentler, executive director of the New Mexico Immunization Coalition, which oversees the program.

School officials balked at providing flu shots because injections are more complex than the handy nasal spray vaccine, and many children have “needle phobias,” she said.

“It takes longer to give shots,” she said, and clinicians who staff the clinics need training and experience giving injections.

The program has ordered about 12,500 doses of flu vaccine this year, which is expected to cover most of the state, excluding Santa Fe County.

“I’m sure we will be considerably down from last year,” she said.