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Pilot project boosts hepatitis B vaccine Program that provides shots for sixth-graders to be used nationwide; Goal is to eliminate disease


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sixth-graders in several cities are playing a major role in a national effort to wipe out hepatitis B.

In a three-year pilot project in Kansas City and Austin, Texas, 10- and 11-year-olds are being vaccinated against the potentially deadly disease that affects the liver.

The program has been embraced by six other cities this year, and health officials are preparing to take it nationwide.

"Hepatitis B is a nasty little virus. The long-term goal is to eliminate it," said Leanne Glenn, a nurse with the Kansas City Health Department.

"But it will take 10 to 20 years to see if this project is having long-term health benefits."

The effort is akin to the effort waged against polio in the 1960s, said Gerald Hoff, Health Department administrator.

"Now, polio has virtually been eliminated in this country," Hoff said.

Hepatitis B is spread through blood and other body fluids. In this country, 300,000 people -- mostly young adults -- are infected annually, according to the Unified Government Department of Health. The disease affects one in 20 Americans and kills 5,000 a year.

Symptoms include fatigue, low-grade fever and sometimes jaundice.

"You could develop hepatitis B and not even know it," Glenn said.

The disease spreads most commonly through sexual contact and intravenous drug use.

But infectious-disease experts are increasingly concerned about teen-agers and hepatitis B because of the popularity of tattooing and body piercing.

That, in part, is why health officials wanted adolescents to be vaccinated before they engaged in risky behavior.

This year Missouri began paying for the vaccine, which costs $9.45 a dose. Each child gets three doses. Last year, when 7,000 sixth-graders were immunized, it cost the Unified Government coalition $200,000.

This year, several Missouri private and parochial schools are participating in the vaccination program.

Six other cities -- Los Angeles; Columbia, S.C.; Portland, Ore.; Detroit; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Philadelphia -- have joined the effort.

In Missouri, the vaccine is required for preschoolers to attend public schools and any state-licensed day-care center.

By fall, all seventh-graders will have to be vaccinated before entering school.

It was the early 1990s when the national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices decided every child needed to be immunized against hepatitis B.

Since then, the vaccine has been given to newborns before they leave the hospital.

But children age 10 and older might not be protected against the virus.

Stacy Steurke, a spokesman for Merck & Co. in Kansas City, who is involved in the fight against the spread of hepatitis B, helped set up the sixth-grade immunization program in the area.

"They thought we would never be able to get the consent forms from the parents," he said.

"In some areas, that has still been an obstacle, but we are trying to educate the parents and their children about how important this all is."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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