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LACK OF HEPATITIS SHOTS KEEPS 300 PUPILS OUT OF CLASS

More than 300 Buffalo seventh-graders missed part of the first two weeks of school, and their exclusion had nothing to do with any work stoppage.

The pupils -- at least 8 percent of the school district's pupils in that grade -- were barred from school for failing to get hepatitis B inoculations, thanks to a combination of a new state law and the school district's own policy.

Starting this fall, according to a state law passed last year, any seventh-grader who has not begun the series of shots is to be excluded from school after the first 14 school days.

The Buffalo public school system, following a large public-information campaign to alert parents, has its own policy, excluding those pupils from the first day of school.

As of Sept. 20, there were 303 seventh-graders still barred from school, and that figure does not include seven of the 46 schools that have seventh-graders, according to Andrew Maddigan, spokesman for the school district.

If all the schools had reported their figures, the number of barred pupils presumably would have reached 350. There are about 3,800 seventh-graders in the district.

Erie County health officials estimated Wednesday that the number of excluded Buffalo pupils at one time was more than 500, or more than 13 percent of the district's seventh-graders. County officials expect to have more definitive, audited figures by mid-October.

"This is all very disturbing, because we had what we thought was a very active and successful campaign to inform parents," said Dr. Richard Judelsohn, medical director of the Erie County Health Department. "We don't know if they ignored it or if they didn't hear it."

The Health Department has expanded its clinic hours and held special immunization clinics all year, both in the city and in the suburbs. The department and local school districts also mounted a major publicity campaign to alert parents.

The number of excluded pupils apparently was much smaller in other school districts across the county, especially in school systems that used the grace period of 14 school days. For most school districts, the 14-day period ends sometime this week.

The Sweet Home schools have not barred any seventh-graders, although a handful of pupils could be excluded if they do not start their inoculations this week, school officials said.

"We're fortunate," said Craig W. Allwes, the district's director of planning and community outreach. "As of last May, we had over 170 seventh-graders who had not notified us that they had started the hepatitis B series. It has since been whittled down to about half a dozen."

The new state law, passed in July 1999 and signed into law the next month, was designed to protect children against the dangerous liver disease, which has been found to increase a person's chances of later developing liver cancer, cirrhosis and other serious conditions.

"Hepatitis B is a devastating disease," Judelsohn said.

Since January 1995, children born in New York State have been required to get the hepatitis B inoculations, which are given in two or three stages. The current seventh-graders were born long before that requirement took effect.

Seventh-graders also are entering the adolescent years, when young people start to engage in the risky activities that can increase the spread of hepatitis B -- including the use of hypodermic needles, unprotected sex and tattoos with unsterilized needles.

But roughly one-third of the cases can develop with no apparent link to any risky behavior.

Cost should not be a deterrent for parents; health insurance companies must reimburse their customers for these vaccinations, Judelsohn said. People without insurance can take advantage of the Vaccines for Children program, he said.

Under the state law, seventh-graders must show proof that they at least have started the inoculation series.

"If they're brand-new to the district, we do let them in school if they have a doctor's note with an appointment date to begin the process within 30 days," Maddigan said of Buffalo's policy. Pupils who are returning, however, must have started the inoculations.

Maddigan pointed out that the number of excluded pupils is fluid. It no doubt was much higher in the first two weeks of school and considerably lower now, as more pupils get inoculated.

"That (303 figure) represents a significant decline from the first day of school," Maddigan said. "Exactly how much, we don't have those figures."

Why didn't Buffalo use the 14-day grace period?

"We found that if we allowed them into school, it became very resource-consuming and difficult to create an incentive for parents to come into compliance," Maddigan said.

The district has sent letters to parents, included the information on its school calendars, and tried to reach the public through ads and public-service announcements, Maddigan said.

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