Two reports this week showed the flu vaccine may not always be effective in preventing the virus and resulting health problems in children, but medical experts said nothing in the new data should discourage people from getting immunized.
One study revealed that flu shots in the past two seasons did not reduce doctor visits or the risk of hospitalization for flu in children age 5 and younger. Another showed that MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a sometimes fatal drug-resistant bacteria that can accompany the flu, is contributing to the growing number of child deaths from the influenza.
The first study, published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, suggested that a reason the vaccine did not prevent children from getting the flu was that the strains in the flu vaccines have mismatched the circulating flu strain in past years .
Although researchers did not look at the hospitalization rate for the ages of everyone who'd received the mismatched vaccine, young children and the aging population are typically hit hardest by the flu when they get it. Influenza is one of the leading causes of death among children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 72 children died from the flu last year.
"This year, the match between the circulating strains looks very good," said Lyn Finelli at the CDC's influenza surveillance program.
Finelli said his organization's recommendations on who should receive the flu vaccine will not change. In fact, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice recently pushed to expand the recommended age to range from 6 months to 18 years old.
While it is still too early to tell how closely the flu vaccine matches the strain this year, researchers noted the improvement in matching the flu strain to the vaccine over the past years. According to the study, only 11 percent of influenza strains across the United States were similar to those in the vaccine during the 2003 to 2004 flu season. The number increased to 36 percent in the 2004 to 2005 season.
And even with the recent findings, many experts still warn about the potentially fatal outcome of passing over the flu vaccine this season. Even possible protection from the vaccine outweighs the risk of getting the flu, said Dr. Devang Doshi, director of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology, and Pulmonology at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
"Our prevention is as good as our vaccines are," said Doshi. "If we can optimize [the flu vaccine], I think we'll be in better shape than we were in previous years."
The second study this week may give one of the most compelling reasons to give your child a flu shot this year. In a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers found that MRSA contributed to 30 percent of flu deaths in the 2006-2007 flu season. The studies also showed an increase over the past three years in the proportion of children who both died from influenza and became infected with MRSA.
MRSA is a drug-resistant superbug that typically piggybacks on the flu and can cause outbreaks of deadly pneumonia. According to Doshi, bacterial pneumonia is a secondary complication resulting from the flu. Secondary infections, more often than the flu itself, increase the risk of death from the flu.
"We know that influenza has been around for a long time, and the risk for not being immunized is very high," said Doshi. "The secondary complications are getting worse in ways of prevention, so we need to look at preventing the flu."
Although flu shots do not guarantee protection from MRSA pneumonia or other respiratory infections, Finelli said protection from symptoms that attract MRSA is all the more reason to get a flu shot this season.
"You can't prevent the bacteria, but if you prevent the flu, you prevent the co-infection," said Finelli. "These infections together are more fatal than one alone."
With hopes of encouraging the public to vaccinate, the CDC recently released a video testimonial of families who have lost children from complications related to the flu. In an emotional confession, each family claims their child's death could have been prevented by the flu vaccine.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, said getting the flu shot -- which is available from late September through early spring -- does not mean that you will not get the flu, but it may prevent the transmission of life-threatening symptoms caused by the flu. Each year, a new vaccine is created to accommodate the changing strain of the virus.
"Even if [the flu] doesn't match the vaccine strain of the year, you do get some protection," Schaffner said. "Partial protection is better than none."
Indeed, many physicians recommend the flu shot to all their patients -- regardless of age. But a number of patients still refuse. A few years ago, Diane McGowan, featured in the CDC's video, was one mother who did not see the need for her and her family to get annual vaccinations.
"I was a parent that had the misconception that we didn't need the flu shot unless we had a chronic illness," said McGowan. That was her feeling until 2005, when her 15-year-old son, Martin, died from influenza.
Schaffner said misinformation about the vaccine keeps some people from getting the flu shot. One myth, he said, is that a person can get the flu from getting the flu vaccine.
"Because we administer the shot during the cold season, you may get the shot when you have already developed cold symptoms," Schaffner said.
The CDC also recommends avoiding close contact with others, even if they do not have influenza, as well as taking antiviral medications. McGowan said, along with an annual flu shot -- which she and her family now receives -- community awareness is also an important method of prevention.
McGowan has created the nonprofit organization M.A.R.T.I.N. (May All Receive Their Immunizations Now) Flu Foundation, which she hopes will educate others about the severity of the flu and the importance of vaccinations.
"Every time I see the number of deaths from the flu, it kills me," McGowan said. "Because I know it's preventable."