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Class sticks it to the needy, in a good way

Benson students expand flu shots for the underserved
by: JIM CLARK, For their public-health class at Benson High, Thath Kim (from left), Albert Le, Justine Grandbois and Anatoliy Vlasenko surveyed local ethnic-minority churches and identified reasons church members may not have gotten flu shots.

While getting a flu vaccine is an annual tradition for many people, it's not so routine for others who might not speak English, don't have health insurance, can't get to a clinic or have cultural beliefs against getting vaccinated.

A group of Benson Polytechnic High School students recently tackled this public health issue in their own communities, surveying the members of a Vietnamese church and a Russian church about what barriers stand in their way.

They then convinced the church elders about the importance of getting vaccinated, and designed two free clinics that resulted in about 200 people getting vaccinated against influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia, two of the leading causes of death among the elderly and those with weak immune systems.

For their work, the six students this week won Multnomah County's Katie Jeans-Gail Award for Young Heroes, named for a Portland woman who dedicated her life to establishing health clinics and improving the lives of young people around the world. Jeans-Gail died at age 25 in 2003 in a car crash.

'As far as public health goes, this was a very involved project, and it was wildly successful,' said Don Lavine, who has taught public health at Benson for the past 10 years. 'They got more people vaccinated than the county did when they put on a similar clinic.'

The students will receive their award at a ceremony set for 11 a.m. April 10 at the Multnomah Building, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., during National Public Health Week.

The students will tell you the project wasn't easy. First, they had to convince the church elders of the importance of the issue.

'My priest at first didn't really care about it,' said Albert Le, one of the students and a member of the Southeast Asian Vicariate, at 5404 N.E. Alameda Drive. 'I came in four times to talk to him.'

Finally, Le was given the green light to distribute written surveys to the church members in Vietnamese, and received about 200 back.

They said they didn't get vaccinated because it is too costly, because they lacked transportation, because they didn't understand English or because they believed it wouldn't work.

Meanwhile, another student in the group, Anatoliy Vlasenko, tried to convince people of the benefits of getting vaccinated at the Ebenezer Russian Full Gospel Church in Milwaukie, where his grandfather is the pastor.

Despite his efforts only 10 surveys were returned; he said he ran into some cultural distrust and in retrospect would have spent more time talking with church elders and stressing the fact that the vaccine would be free.

Some are at higher risk

Overall, the students found that the survey responses reflected the challenges identified by Bryan Goodin, coordinator of the Oregon Department of Human Services-sponsored Oregon Adult Immunization Coalition, a public-private partnership that administers a free vaccination project called 'free, local, underserved.'

According to Goodin, 'underserved' is broadly defined as those who lack insurance and transportation and have a language barrier - as well as people over age 60, a population that tends to have a higher rate of diabetes, making them a higher health risk.

While there is some controversy over the need for childhood vaccines and whether they may lead to certain conditions such as autism, Goodin believes that children, people over 50 and those who have regular contact with children should be vaccinated for influenza, and people over 65 should receive a pneumococcal pneumonia shot.

The latter term, he said, is an 'opportunistic bacteria, so it won't get past people with healthy immune systems. People with bad immune systems, it tends to kill.' He said the combined death toll in the U.S. each year for the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia is about 100,000.

To keep these people from falling through the cracks, Goodin's coalition has worked to provide free vaccines to vulnerable populations at 80 sites in the community this year.

The biggest obstacles, he's found, are that translators are expensive, people are wary of government entities and 'certain cultures, especially Asians, don't tend to seek providers that aren't of their culture.'

Goodin gives a lot of credit to the Benson students, who were able to persuade the church leaders at the Asian church to hold two clinics in January and February, after Sunday church services.

The students arranged for public health providers from within the population to run the clinic and administer about 200 people with vaccines that had been donated through Goodin's group. And now that the template has been set up, Goodin can continue the work at the church each year.

Flu season in Portland runs from October through late March, so Goodin says that even if you've gotten the flu recently, it isn't too late to get vaccinated because another strain could hit.

Curriculum meets community

Back at Benson, the six students - all of whom plan to go to college next year to pursue their medical careers - are grateful for their chance to utilize their skills in the real world.

During the course of their public-health studies, they've often gone into the community, visiting local emergency rooms, doing ride-alongs with paramedics and visiting with seniors at nursing homes.

One of the other public health projects involved visiting a nursing home and asking seniors what they wanted most, in efforts to prevent feelings of isolation and depression. Many seniors said they wanted their own books, so the students enticed local bookstores to donate new copies of some of their favorites.

Another student group created a dance video to increase exercise among youths, and a fourth group developed a lesson plan for middle-school teachers that's built around a county Web site called eHealth for Teens ( www.ehealth4teens.org ), which has not been well-publicized.

'All four years of school, they've made us think, think, think,' said Jordan Pulver, who hopes to become an emergency-room physician's assistant.

Benson's function as both a vocational and comprehensive high school may come under the spotlight in upcoming months during the school district's evaluation of its high schools. But none of the seniors in Lavine's class want to see Benson format change, or its programs diluted.

'All the different classes link together,' Vlasenko said. 'They'd miss the whole Benson experience.'

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