Who’s your favorite superhero?
I’ve never thought of this question as an icebreaker, but my nephew Aiden has had this figured out for quite a while. One catch, you can’t pick The Hulk, that’s his favorite and no one else is allowed to have it. The Hulk has taken on special significance in Aiden’s life over the past year; this super-strong superhero has become a symbol for Aiden ever since he was diagnosed and began treatment for leukemia.
Family and friends have rallied behind my sister and her family while their sweet boy tackles chemotherapy, lumbar punctures, hospital stays and, most importantly for a three-year-old, cabin fever. There have been a lot of “what ifs” and contingency plans made over these past months because having a child with cancer turns your life upside down. Priorities shift, quickly.
Aiden’s treatment will last years, which means all those plans for preschool and kindergarten, even first grade has come into question. Being immunocompromised means years of being extra careful about who and what you come into contact with, and where.
We’ve all seen the headlines:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last month stating that, nationwide, only 2.5% of kindergartners in the United States had an exemption from one or more vaccines in the 2018-19 school year. In Arizona, for the measles vaccine alone, that number is 5.2%, with an additional 1.2% marked as noncompliant.
For Aiden, these percentages are crucial. Herd immunity levels of 95% are needed to prevent a measles outbreak, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In Arizona, personal belief exemptions for school entrance vaccination requirements are relatively easy to get, and this has led to large increases in the number of non-vaccinated or under-vaccinated children in our schools.
What if we have an outbreak? According to my district’s lead nurse, the procedure is to call the county and follow their guidelines. For chickenpox, a letter is sent home. “If it was measles, the county would exclude this child for the course of his illness and all kids exempted or noncompliant from the immunization for 21 days. If within those 21 days, another case comes forward, the exempted or noncompliant kids can miss another 21 days. For pertussis and most others, we are under a surveillance period determined by the health department. [The] nurse is to monitor for symptoms in other children/staff.”
For Aiden, a single case of measles would mean a minimum of three weeks out of school, waiting to see if another case comes forward. Because the elementary school in his neighborhood has only 92% of kindergartners vaccinated, the chances are high that a single case would quickly spread to others.
What if Aiden’s school doesn’t have a nurse on staff? School nurses are not required by state law, making it difficult to track the number of schools without them. In my district, our school nurses are funded by our current budget override, the extension of which was just voted down by our community.
Our school nurses do so much more than just administer ibuprofen and call parents when a child is sick. We rely on them to assess the physical, emotional and mental health of our students daily. School nurses are often the front lines for student advocacy, recognizing when a student is going hungry at night, needs vision or hearing assistance, or social services. Schools benefit greatly from having a caring and dedicated school nurse on staff. We need these highly trained health professionals on our campuses every day, but in the event of an outbreak they would be the most important person on our campuses.
In February, Governor Ducey stated that he would veto any bills that came to his desk during the 2019 session that sought to expand vaccine exemptions. He did not, however, say that the existing laws should be repealed.
How, then, to protect kids like Aiden? Preschool and kindergarten are an important part of a child’s social development, a part he may have to miss out on.
Kids like Aiden need superheroes. They need community members, parents, and students who stand up for them and help them become stronger. They need a community devoted to fighting preventable diseases, and a devoted school nurse. These people are my favorite superheroes.
Who’s your favorite superhero?