Dec. 30 2014

A Modern Day Housecall

Flu season is in high gear with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting cases widespread in 43 states. Among children, who are particularly vulnerable, fewer than 60 percent have been properly vaccinated against the flu. This is drastically less than other childhood vaccines; more than 90 percent of children, for example, are vaccinated for measles and chicken pox.

For the last few years, pediatrician Melissa Stockwell, assistant professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School, has been experimenting with text messages to see if they can boost vaccination rates. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, she reported that a set of weekly texts led to higher vaccination rates. The texts gave parents information on where and when to get a vaccine along with a reminder that the flu is a real risk to their children.

“Many people think that influenza is just a bad cold, but it can actually be a serious infection,” Stockwell asserts. As of December 27, 21 children have died from the flu this season nationally.

Public health scientists reformulate the flu vaccine annually to protect against what they anticipate will be the dominant strains. Even when the vaccine isn’t a perfect match—as is the case this year—Stockwell says it’s still important that everyone gets a flu shot. “Depending on the strain of the flu, the vaccine will offer some protection and make the illness less severe than it would have been without it.”

Some children from 6 months through 8 years old, especially those getting the vaccine for the first time, need two doses of influenza vaccine in a given season. In a new study, Stockwell looked at whether text messages can increase the number of parents who bring their child back for the second dose when it’s needed. Children who only get one of their two needed doses they don’t have full protection, she emphasizes. “It’s a little bit like wearing only half a bike helmet.”

The results published in the journal Pediatrics demonstrate that text reminders which let a family know when to come back for the second dose boosted compliance to about two-thirds. Adding educational information to the texts that explained why two doses are important further hiked the rate to nearly three-quarters of the children studied.

What’s more, parents embraced the idea of the text reminders. Among young parents, Stockwell observes, texting is one of the dominant forms of communication, supplanting phone and certainty old-fashioned snail mail.

“I think that text messages are an interesting way for practices to reach out to families when they’re not right in front of them and to let them know about care their child may need,” says Stockwell. “In some ways it’s like a modern day house call.”