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    Health officials push chicken pox vaccine

    Children must have it before entering day care or school this year. Some worry that parents don't know that.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001

    Chicken pox is a childhood rite of passage that today's children don't need, Florida health officials say.

    Under new Florida law set to go into effect this summer, young children must be vaccinated against chicken pox before entering day care or school, and the state Department of Health says now is the time to do it.

    Health officials worry many children will be sent home the first day of school because they haven't had the shot, called the varicella vaccine.

    "The parents don't know about (the requirement)," said Al Sulkes, manager of the Vaccines for Children Program at the state Department of Health. "It's not that they don't want to, they just don't know that this is facing them."

    He said it's hard to reach parents of incoming kindergarteners because they can't send a note home the year before.

    Under the new law, children attending day care must get the varicella vaccine by July 1.

    Children entering pre-kindergarten or kindergarten must get it before school starts in August or September.

    Children who already have had the disease are exempt.

    While most U.S. schoolchildren suffer no lasting effects from chicken pox, except a scar or two, the disease kills about 100 people each year and sends 10,000 to the hospital, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Some children suffer serious scarring.

    It also causes hundreds of missed school days.

    The varicella vaccine was approved in the U.S. in March 1995, and the CDC recommends it be given to everyone over 12 months of age who hasn't had chicken pox.

    According to a three-year study published March 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine, the vaccine is 87 percent effective in preventing moderate or severe cases of the disease.

    That is considered very good, and an editorial accompanying the study said widespread immunization certainly appears worth it. But it's still unclear whether some children should be revaccinated, or how long the immunity lasts.

    Children with private insurance can get the vaccine from their pediatricians. Children without insurance or who rely on Medicaid can get it from local physicians or health departments through the state health department's Vaccines for Children Program.

    "There should be no children in the state of Florida who don't have the vaccine available to them," Sulkes said. "We distribute our vaccine to county health departments and thousands of doctors."

    For more information, contact your family doctor or your county health department.

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    From the Times state desk