How SMS is Helping the Fight Against Flu

Is SMS an effective method in preventing young consumers from contracting the flu virus? A recent study says absolutely. 

A team led by Dr. Melissa Stockwell at the Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University studied 660 children ages 6 months to 8 years. This age range requires two flu vaccine doses, administered 28 days apart, with the first dose priming the immune system and the second dose protecting it. Children that do not receive both doses are not fully protected from the virus, so researchers were inspired to find ways of increasing follow-up appointments.


The research team subsequently sent text message alerts to parents of young patients reminding them to bring kiddies in for dose #2. They split parents into three groups. Group 1 received an educational text message featuring information about the necessity of two doses, while Group 2 received a conventional SMS reminder alerting them to the time and date of the second appointment. Group 3 participants were given written reminders only.

Results indicated children who received the educational SMS were much more likely to attend the second appointment. Some three quarters of the first group went to their second appointment, compared to less than a third of the second group. Out of Group 3, 3.57% attended the second appointment.

Feedback from the families was positive–nearly 61% of parents noted the text message alert as the main reason for making the follow-up appointment, or one of the reasons. These findings mean a potential improvement regarding flu vaccination coverage, which is particularly low among young children. Previous studies have shown written reminders to be ineffective, especially among urban, low-income families.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths have occurred in the United States from 1976 to 2007. The elderly and the very young are most at risk, but because seasonal flu often results in death from other causes, the virus is often left off death certificates. Experts say counting only those deaths where flu is listed on the death certificate “would constitute a gross underestimation” of the virus’s actual impact.

Dr. Stockwell’s controlled trial has provided the medical community with invaluable information in terms of establishing optimal practices for influenza vaccine reminders. The text message appears to be a highly effective option, and one already being used more and more in other areas of medicine.

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