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Immunization programs keeping children well

| Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001

Children need more than new shoes and a fresh box of Crayolas to start school.

Parents also must make sure their children have received the immunizations that are required under state law before they can step into the classroom.

Just as important, vaccines are the reason that diseases such as measles, mumps and polio are now virtually nonexistent, said Dr. David Greenberg, associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

'All of these diseases would come back if our immunization rates would fall. We don't see these because our immunization efforts have been so good,' Greenberg said.

In the spring, local school districts and the Allegheny County Health Department scrambled to ensure students received a measles, mumps and rubella booster. For the first time, students in kindergarten through the 12th grade were required to get the booster, and those who didn't were not permitted in school after April 30.

The day of the deadline, as many as 9,000 children in Allegheny County had not received the booster, or their parents had not verified that they had received it. Now, less than 100 students are unaccounted for, Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole said.

'Parents didn't believe we were going to hold children out,' said Jeannine French, coordinator of health services for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Under state law, students in kindergarten through 12th grade must have received shots against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Children entering kindergarten or first grade must be vaccinated against hepatitis B.

'State law is not changing for this school year, but next school year there will be some new requirements and it's not too early for parents to begin getting their kids immunized,' Cole said.

By the start of the 2002-03 school year, seventh-graders must be vaccinated against hepatitis B. Children in kindergarten, first grade and seventh grade will have to be vaccinated against chicken pox or verify that they have had the disease.

Cole said parents should not delay having children vaccinated for either disease. The hepatitis B vaccine consists of three doses spread out over five months. For children 13 and older, the chicken pox vaccine requires two doses over a one-month period.

French said the city schools explain the vaccination requirements in a booklet that is mailed to all parents every year. District officials tell parents of new students when they enroll their children, and building principals receive information about any changes in vaccination requirements.

'Parents and the general public do not realize how vitally important immunizations are. It has become so routine no one remembers how terrible these diseases are that we prevent,' Greenberg said.

Jonathan Potts can be reached at jpotts@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7900.

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