Among the 115 children who died of flu-related causes last year, less than a quarter of them had received the flu vaccine, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While childhood deaths from the flu are extremely rare, experts said the flu vaccine could have likely saved the lives of these children.
"The influenza vaccine prevents the flu," said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC. "And if someone does come down with the flu, the vaccine can help avoid serious complications."
Since 2004, states have been required to report flu-related deaths in kids and teens, and the new data revealed that nearly half the children who died of influenza between Sept. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2011, had been healthy. They had no high-risk medical conditions that would have made them more susceptible to flu complications.
In the most recent issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers also noted that of the 94 children who died in the hospital of flu-related causes, only half of them had been prescribed antiviral drugs while sick.
Many people believe young, healthy children's bodies can fight the flu naturally, but CDC officials said being young was a risk factor for flu complications.
"Immunization is essential," said Dr. Lewis Goldfrank, the chairman of emergency medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center. "The fact that we have access to vaccine is a great privilege and opportunity for all. Influenza is preventable, and as these children unfortunately demonstrate, it can be a lethal disease for young children even if they are not previously shown to have serious co-morbidities."
The flu shot is approved for anyone older than 6 months, whether healthy or living with chronic medical conditions. The CDC recommends that people receive the vaccine once a year, as soon as it becomes available in their communities.
While campaigns against vaccines persist, associating them with autism and Alzheimer's, doctors refute such assumptions, and implore hesitating parents to talk to their doctors.
"The vaccine is very safe and effective," said Allison Aiello, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "There is a myth that the vaccine causes individuals to get influenza. This is not true and side effects of the vaccine are very rare. The most common side effect is simply soreness at the site of injection. Benefits greatly outweigh any risks associated with the vaccine."
With the recent outbreak of measles in some parts of the United States, Goldfrank said now is no time to ease up on vaccines.
"Many vaccines are so embedded into our way of life ... permitting people to assume that life is good without vaccines," said Goldfrank. "Were we to have infant mortality, deaths at 5 years old, it would be dramatically different."