03 Nov 2009

Adventures in Public Health!

Line for H1N1 Flu vaccination outside of Eliot-Hine Middle School

Line for H1N1 Flu vaccination outside of Eliot-Hine Middle School

Swine Flu!
Oh no! From pigs?
No! Well at least I don’t think so…
Stupid name. Heh heh heh…pigs are funny.
Okay fine. If I call it the H1N1 virus will you take it seriously?
Hmm. Maybe? Actually the pig thing was kinda scary.

Swine flu, or the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, has gripped some members of our society in terror. Some it has actually made sick, some have tragically died, some think it’s a government hoax and some think you all should wash your hands, drink plenty of fluids and calm the heck down.

Since this virus has made its comeback in the U.S. I have fallen into all of those camps at one time or another. Well not the hoax one; I will leave that sort of sinister melodrama to the professionals in Hollywood. Being the parent of two under-age humans forces me to take an event like this more seriously than I would have as a younger (freer) adult.  I have been fortunate to have healthy kids who have had very few health issues. Aside from several trips to the ER for various falls, head and/or chin bonks and one peanut-stuck-in-nose incident, we have been very lucky. Yes, I am knocking wood and typing at the same time.

The virus and its vaccine have been a recurrent topic on the Moms on the Hill (MOTH) site since the spring and reached a zenith of questions and answers two weeks ago as the city readied to begin the vaccination clinics.  MOTH owes part of its success to well- informed members who are eager to share their knowledge (and opinions) and while the H1N1 information exchange has been overwhelming it has also been extremely helpful. Members have navigated the confusing nature of the vaccine distribution schedule, explained the priority list and are currently discussing the overall effectiveness and safety of the vaccine.

Personally, I went into information overload during that time and breezed over the roughly 2 million posts on the subject. But a conversation with my practical and non-hysterical mother who also happens to be a nurse began to sway me. Kids, rather than older folks, have begun to be hard-hit by this illness are and some are dying. “Okay,” I thought, “Well that’s scary.” Then when I learned that another fourth-grader had been hospitalized with the illness my decision was made. Vaccinate we would!

Currently the vaccinations are reserved for the most vulnerable in the population; pregnant women, people between the ages of six months and 24 years old; caregivers of infants under six months old and anyone with a health condition, such as asthma, which would make them more vulnerable to the worst ravages of the illness.

After convincing a friend and her two kids to join us in our Adventures in Public Health we headed to Eliot-Hine Middle School, the vaccination site for Ward 6. The line had already stretched outside the door (in the rain) before the scheduled start time but we figured we must forge ahead.

Due to my perusals of the many MOTH emails on the subject I knew to brace myself for long lines at Eliot. The previous week had seen people spending as long as two and one half hours at the school before they were through. Many folks opted to go across the Anacostia River to Kelly-Miller Middle School where the lines were much shorter. I chose to stay at Eliot to embrace the Capitol Hill experience for THIH readers. You are welcome.

You’d think forcing kids to stand in the rain to wait for a shot would be hard. And you would be right, although the fear of needles was averted as we learned that our kids were old enough for the mist version which is inhaled. This alleviated the kids’ fears for a while, but later on in the evening the kid version of the rumor mill had twisted the facts once more and they feared they would be receiving a NEEDLE up the nose which, as you can imagine, caused a fresh bout of anxiety. A few of the kids were never fully convinced they would not have to suffer a nose shot until they were out the door with freshly vaccinated, yet un-poked nostrils.

Here I am wet in line. I'm actually not as unhappy as I look.

Here I am wet in line. I'm actually not as unhappy as I look.

Considering the general unpleasantness of line-waiting, not to mention line waiting with children… at dinnertime… in the rain, it was actually not all that unpleasant an experience. The Red Cross was on hand giving out hot chocolate which helped a great deal. The volunteers were also offering bottled water and coffee. I accepted a water but felt vaguely guilty about it. After all, I associate the Red Cross with victims of natural disasters who have experienced great loss and tragedy. As unpleasant as line waiting in the rain is I still can’t feel it reaches the level of a natural disaster but they really seemed to want us to take the water so we did.

Once we got inside we were given informational sheets on the virus. We took note of the many languages the sign was written in such as Amharic and Korean. I think I saw Hebrew and a few others I could not begin to identify. We were sent to the lunchroom of the school to fill out the forms. After the form filling we were asked to get in another line. This part of the process began to feel like a sunny Sunday in April at Eastern Market.  We saw friends we hadn’t seen a while and allowed the shared experience of waiting in line for a vaccine to work as a natural ice breaker.

The most interesting part of the line was its make-up and a noticeable lack of African-American families. In quick and unscientific poll of African-American moms I know few have decided to get their kids vaccinated because they are wary of the speed with which it has come about, a finding which is similar to what the Washington Post reported a little over a week ago. Of course I also know plenty of white families who are opting out of the vaccine at this time as well; however, considering the demographic make up of Ward 6 I assumed the vaccination line would have been more diverse.

Once we got upstairs where the  actual medical procedure was taking place I began to recall black and white images from the 1950s when the polio vaccine was first widely administered: white medical screens, multiple tables staffed with nurses and many, many volunteers.

All around us toddlers wailed. I felt such pity for the parents and could only offer a rueful smile of understanding.      stroller pic

Blessed with three grade-schoolers and one middle-schooler (the eldest and yet most suspicious of the four actually) we were lucky. We could reason with our kids, explain the potential seriousness of the illness and talk about the wondrous immune system. We told tales of the flu epidemic of 1919 which finally got the middle-schooler on board because of the epidemic’s brief but crucial role in Twilight. Luckily their school had already done some advance work for us by encouraging healthy coughing practices and has long had a rigid hand sanitizer policy.

The weary nurse stuck a syringe in their nose and we slapped an “I got the Flu Shot!” sticker on their shirts and we were out the door in just over an hour and a half. The six-year old deemed the whole event a “waste of time.” Not sure what sort of excitement he was expecting. The overly-informed nine-year old chided him for his lack of respect for public health.

We were told then that since they are under ten they will need to go back in 28 days for another dose because the vaccine has not been proven to work on young children after just one dose.  However the most recent reports are now debating whether that is necessary. So once again I will rely on a combination of MOTH-dispensed information along with the updated news reports to keep me informed.

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