68 Schools, 2 Nurses, 1 Secretary, 1 Mini Van & Lots of Free Vaccines

December 11, 2012

You may have seen the Greater New Orleans Immunization Network’s big white bus parked around town, maybe in front of a grocery store or a strip mall. It’s been around since 1998, offering free vaccinations to boost the immunization rate for young children. But, network director Charmaine Allesandro says it was only after Hurricane Katrina that it became clear just how much work the program still had to do.

“Following Katrina there were so many school-age children coming to our mobile unit without any shot record at all,” she says. “And the parent would say, ‘I had a copy but my house flooded, the doctor’s office flooded, the school flooded.’ So we had thousands of children who had no evidence of ever having been vaccinated.”

So the Immunization Network started going directly to New Orleans-area schools, and here the situation proved more alarming still.

“What we found was, in some cases, for example I remember one school in New Orleans East that I think had something like 12 to 15 percent of their children were up to date on immunizations. Well that’s a disaster waiting to happen I think. And as I recall we had one high school on the West Bank that was even lower than that,” says Roger Gorman, director of development at Children’s Hospital, which oversees the Immunization Network.

Gorman says some of these students had been vaccinated and simply had no record of it, but it still pointed to a huge pubic health need, one with far-reaching consequences for children, families and the whole health care system.

“Typically, for every dollar you spend immunizing children, you save 27 dollars. And in a state like ours, that is not exactly the wealthiest state in the country, those savings are very important,” says Gorman.

The issue, says Allesandro, is usually a combination of education and access – and a lack of both. Too many parents don’t regularly bring their children to see a doctor, she says, they don’t know which shots they need and they don’t know where to start. The answer for the network was to bring free immunization services to the schools.

“It’s easy for parents,” Gorman says. “You don’t have to take time off from work, you don’t have to make a doctor’s appointment, all you have to do is sign the permission slip and your child can get the shot at school.”

The school immunization program started in 2007 in seven schools. Today, it serves 68 schools, relying on just two nurses, a secretary, a mini van and free vaccines provided through federal health programs.

“We used to see 1,000 kids a year, last year we saw 14,000 kids through our mobile unit, then we saw another 10,000 kids through our school program,” Allesandro says. “We’re giving just under 38,000 shots a year.”

It’s adding up to healthier children, fewer emergency room visits, and less risk for others, like the elderly and infants too young to be vaccinated. It’s been so successful that Gorman says Children’s Hospital is now seeking funding for a children’s vision testing program based on its model.

“We think this will have a similar impact on children’s vision here in our community.”

Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about Children’s Hospital Greater New Orleans Immunization Network,  click here.