Coalition launches effort to boost KS adolescent immunization rate

Published: Jul. 20, 2017 at 10:33 PM CDT
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Kansas has one of the lowest adolescent immunization rates in the nation, coming in 44th in the latest America's Health Rankings report.

The Immunize Kansas Coalition recently launched a new effort to boost those numbers. Health experts say its success is vital.

They're invincible - until they're not," Dr. Jo-Ann Harris said of adolescents.

Harris is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Stormont-Vail. She says convincing a generally healthy population they need a dose of protection from potentially deadly diseases is a challenge. That's why the Immunize Kansas Coalition recently unveiled new tools to spread the message to everyone.

"The campaigns that are coming out give tools to the doctors for both talking to parents and giving them materials to educate parents. The campaign also directs it at the children," Harris said.

Among the vaccines it addresses is meningitis. Meningitis can spread quickly in closed environments, like a college dorm or military barracks. The CDC shows fewer than 64 percent of Kansas adolescents have received it, ranking Kansas 46th in the nation.

"If you do survive (meningitis), it can affect the vascular system, so people lose arms, legs because their vascular system shut down," Harris said. "Meningitis is an inflammation around your brain, so it can cause long-lasting effects on your neurologic system."

While many colleges now require the meningitis vaccine, the fairly new immunization for "b" strains is only suggested. Dr. Harris would recommend it, too.

She's also an advocate for HPV vaccines, preventing a virus linked to some cervical, anal, oral and throat cancers.

"The thing about HPV is it's a cancer prevention, and that's what's so key. To get it early before it's transmitted only makes sense," Harris said.

Harris said the HPV vaccine has been around long enough now that studies show it is safe and does not increase or start adolescents having sex any different than they normally would - both concerns which initially kept parents from agreeing to it for their adolescents.

Fewer than a third of girls and less than 20 percent of boys in Kansas have their HPV vaccinations, again, ranking the state near the bottom.

The other major vaccine for adolescents is Tdap, for whooping cough. Here, 87 percent of kansas teens are up to date, ranking 26th, but Harris says there's still room for improvement.

"It's very much education, publicity and testimonials," she said.

Parents and teens can expect to have more direct discussions with doctors about these illnesses and vaccines.

The Immunize Kansas Coalition has a goal of increasing the meningitis vaccine rate from 64 percent to 80 percent by 2020.