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Nurse takes aim at virus

by Sharon Carter

Al Rushing, coordinator for the state’s Immunization Outreach Program in Carson City, is a man with many missions.

This spring, one goal of the former Army Special Forces medic is more complicated than treating tropical diseases, “catching” (delivering) babies and immunizing the mountain people of Southeast Asia.

Rushing, a registered nurse, would like to work with the Douglas County School District to set up a program to immunize the county’s middle school students against the highly contagious hepatitis B virus.

The district’s Superintendent, Pendery Clark, said Thursday that such a program would be worthwhile, but she hesitates to discuss it at this point.

“We’d like to provide the opportunity (to be immunized) for those who want it,” Clark said. “But we need to review and approve information that would go home to parents. We need to get some idea how much time it would take and figure out how to set it up so it wouldn’t interfere with tests and classes.”

But for Rushing, time is of the essence.

The free program, which supplies the series of three shots required for protection against the virus, is currently supported by federal and state funding.

Rushing fears the program is not high on many lawmakers’ lists of priorities and he worries that funding could run out.

“There’s that. And then for the kids themselves – if we can implement the program very soon, it would be possible to complete the series of immunizations before the students leave for summer break,” Rushing said. “They’d be immune essentially for life.”

The hepatitis B virus (HBV), Rushing said, is 100 times more contagious than the AIDS virus.

Like the virus which causes AIDS, HBV is present in infected blood and other body fluids, Rushing said. It can also pass through mucous membranes and tiny breaks in the skin.

But unlike the AIDS virus, HBV can survive for more than a week in dried blood or other body fluids – which makes it more dangerous to more people.

While it isn’t always a death sentence, the Hepatitis B virus causes a serious viral infection with a high fever. It attacks the liver and often leads to cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Rushing said the virus ranks second only to tobacco as a known cause of cancer deaths and one in 20 people now has or will have it. There is no known cure.

“But, the disease is 100 percent preventable with immunization,” he said. “Carson-Tahoe Hospital starting including hepatitis B with other vaccines in their immunizations for newborns about three years ago.

“In California and 29 other states, kids have to have it to go to public school. But our middle and high school students in Nevada potentially have no protection – especially since the series can cost about $250 or more from a private doctor.”

Rushing and his staff of volunteers (mostly state employees who, like Rushing, have what he calls a Peace Corps mentality) just finished giving students at Carson City’s Eagle Valley Middle School their first shots Wednesday.

“And I’m planning on getting the volunteers, if we need them, to help set it up in Douglas,” Rushing said. “If people (in the county) are aware the immunization service is being provided, they might help, too.”

John Soderman, assistant superintendent for educational services in the Douglas County School District, said Thursday he recognizes the value of the program and was working to help set it up.

“The immunization will be purely voluntary and we are working toward doing it,” Soderman said. “There are some logistics problems, but none of them are unsurmountable.”

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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