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Pharmacy students join battle against influenza

Third-year pharmacy student Elizabeth Breeden administers a flu shot to UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal, Ph.D.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that influenza was responsible for nearly 80,000 deaths in the United States during the last flu season. Students at the UMKC School of Pharmacy have been busy doing their part to help patients across the state of Missouri battle the flu this season.

As part of their curriculum, the students participate in an introductory pharmacy practice experience that includes learning to administer immunizations. This year, nearly 155 third-year students on the school’s campuses in Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield have taken their new skills and administered 2,171 flu shots through the school’s immunization delivery program.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to get involved representing pharmacists and how we as professionals can contribute to the public health,” said Valerie Ruehter, Pharm.D., clinical associate professor and director of experiential learning.

The School of Pharmacy started the initiative in 2011 by working with the University’s Healthy for Life wellness program and administering flu shots to faculty and staff. Its collaborative efforts have since expanded to a include community pharmacies and even Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Students providing flu shots throughout Missouri have already taken part in 50 flu immunization events this year, Ruehter said.

Bailey Burt, a third-year pharmacy student, remembers one of her early encounters with a flu shot patient who flinched just as she was administering the shot.

“I think he was just trying to scare me,” said Burt, who chaired this year’s pharmacy student Operation Immunization volunteer program. “A lot of us were scared to do the immunizations at first, scared of the blood or scared of hitting a bone. But you learn to do it and just pharmacist up.”

Pharmacist up, she did. Burt figures she has administered more than 400 vaccines during this year’s flu shot season.

“I didn’t even realize that was something pharmacists could actually do when I was applying for pharmacy school,” she said. “Pharmacy practice is ever changing. It’s exciting.”

Aside from the pharmacy school’s immunization program, Burt said that students administered more than 1,000 flu shots through their own volunteer efforts working with pharmacies and hospitals. All totaled, the UMKC students have given well over 3,100 flu shots to Missourians this year.

Even UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal and other top university administrators received their flu vaccines from pharmacy students at a clinic conducted by the Healthy for Life program to encourage others to get the flu vaccine.

All of the vaccines are given under the protocol with required oversight by a physician, said Cameron Lindsey, Pharm. D., professor of pharmacy practice and administration and coordinator of the immunization course. Lindsey said the School of Pharmacy began training students to give immunizations in 2004.

Today, the school has a history of students, faculty and alumni reaching out to meet public health needs. They were on site in 2009 providing tetanus vaccines to victims of the Joplin tornado. That same year, many of the school’s faculty and alumni were active in providing flu shots during the H1N1 “Swine Flu” pandemic.

The American Pharmacists Association even honored the School of Pharmacy in 2012 with its Immunization Champion Award that recognizes contributions of pharmacists to improve the vaccine rates in their communities.

“For a long time, the School of Pharmacy has felt that having students trained to help with the public health aspect of immunizations is a priority,” Lindsey said. “We’ve pretty much gone wherever the need has made the most sense to help the community. And it helps prepare our students so that once they graduate, they will be able to go out and provide that service within their communities.”

Ruehter said the School of Pharmacy’s community contacts and collaborations have grown as more people recognize the immunization skills and services that pharmacists can offer. That has allowed the school and its students to expand their reach in providing flu vaccines.

“This gives us an opportunity to really affect public health,” Ruehter said. “We are touching more people and hopefully saving more lives by preventing the flu from being spread. We started here on our campus and have extended that reach to the surrounding metro areas and wherever our students are volunteering or working.”