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Nonprofits promote flu shots at polling places


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Two national nonprofit health groups are offering local public health departments a shot in the arm for fall influenza vaccination efforts by helping them organize immunization clinics at or near polling places.


The Vote and Vax program is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a healthcare philanthropy organization, and SPARC (Sickness Prevention Achieved through Regional Collaboration), a nonprofit organization focused on disease prevention, according to background materials posted on the initiative's Web site.


The program provides health agencies with technical expertise to set up the clinics and marketing muscle to promote them, but does not provide the vaccine. Public health agencies are advised to charge for the shots as they normally would at other fall flu-vaccination clinics.


Offering flu vaccinations on Election Day in November is a way to target seniors, who typically vote in large numbers, Vote and Vax organizers say. Seniors are one of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) priority groups for flu immunization.


SPARC started offering fall election clinics in the late 1990s, but the program expanded in 2006 when it partnered with the RWJF to enable 25 public health agencies to sponsor Vote and Vax clinics at polling places. That year, the clinics delivered 13,790 vaccine doses at 127 polling sites in 14 states. The program's goal for Nov 4 is to expand to 1,000 polling places across the United States.


This November, the Guilford County Department of Public Health in north-central North Carolina will offer Vote and Vax clinics at eight polling places, according to an Aug 20 report in the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. Lynne Beck, the health department's spokeswoman, said officials will visit 11 of the county's 165 polling sites before narrowing the number to eight. The department expects to charge $25 to $30 for the flu vaccine, the same as it charges at other sites, she told the News & Record.


In a report on the effect of the 2006 Vote and Vax, Douglas Shenson, MD, MPH, president of SPARC, and Mary Adams, MPH, an epidemiologist and partner at On Target Health Data in Hartford, Conn., wrote that Election Day in early November is an optimal time for flu vaccination. They also said that polling places, because they meet strict accessibility requirements, are likely to attract other vulnerable people besides seniors, who might be difficult to reach with the vaccination message. The report was published in the July-August issue of the Journal of Public Health Management Practice.


Survey results from the 2006 Election-Day immunization clinics revealed that more than 80% of the adults who were vaccinated were in the CDC's flu-immunization priority groups. About 43% of the recipients were men and 57% were women. Nearly 900 pediatric vaccine doses were administered at the Vote and Vax clinics. Eleven percent of the recipients did not have health insurance.


On a scale of 1 to 10, public health agencies rated the overall success of the program at 8.5. Health officials gave the program high marks for organization, ease of planning, publicity, and convenience for recipients. However, some sites reported problems with vaccine supply. One group had to cancel its clinic after its plan to offer free vaccinations at a polling place in a medically underserved neighborhood was criticized by political activists, who perceived it as "get out the vote" campaign for Democrats.


"We are encouraged that not only were significant numbers of participants 'new' vaccine recipients, but also 28% reported they would not have likely received an influenza vaccination had they not been offered one at a Vote and Vax site," Shenson and Adams wrote.


The Vote and Vax program could be a model for the delivery of other preventive health services such as cancer screenings or pandemic influenza measures, they wrote. Though the program isn't deployed in emergency conditions, it involves delivering a large single-day supply of vaccine to many residents in many non-healthcare settings across communities, they added.


The authors said, however, that some questions about the Vote and Vax strategy remain. For example, it's unclear if the program increases communitywide vaccine coverage. Also, they wrote that the political response in one community emphasized the importance of clearly separating public health activities from any perception of "political intrigue."

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