With three children already dead from the flu this year, experts urge vaccinations for everyone older than six months.
This year’s flu season has already claimed the lives of three children in the U.S., but experts say that there’s still time to protect others before the flu season gets worse.
During last year’s flu season, 169 children died of complications from influenza, the deadliest year on record excluding the pandemic of 2009. More alarming is that half of those children were otherwise healthy.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that while last year’s flu season hit hard and early, we have been “lucky” so far this year.
According to a new CDC report released Thursday, 40 percent of the U.S. population reported getting an annual flu shot as of mid-November, a three percentage point increase over the same time last year. However, only 40 percent of pregnant women say that they’ve been vaccinated, and Schuchat says that number needs to get to 100 percent.
“Where we’re at now isn’t as important as where we get to,” she said. “Parents can do a lot of benefit for their children by making sure they are vaccinated appropriately against influenza.”
CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said that, even using a conservative model, experts predict that last year’s vaccinations prevented 6.6 million people from getting sick, 3.2 million people from going to the doctor, and 79,000 hospitalizations. Still, 381,000 people were hospitalized last year because of the flu.
“It is so important that people get vaccinated,” Frieden said. “The flu vaccine in a bottle doesn’t do anyone any good.”
The CDC and other infectious disease organizations say that every person over the age of six months should receive a flu shot.
Seniors and those at risk of complications from flu, including those with compromised immune systems, are strongly encouraged to get flu shots, along with pregnant women.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that women who receive flu vaccinations during pregnancy are less likely to contract the flu, and so have a reduced risk of influenza-related fetal death. The report also confirmed the safety of flu vaccinations for women in the later stages of pregnancy.
Dr. Carol J. Baker, chair of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases’ Childhood Influenza Immunization Coalition and a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said that the lowest vaccination rates are among 13- to 17-year-olds.
She says many parents don’t think to immunize their children against the flu because they are healthy and strong at that age.
“It’s just not true,” she said. “About half the children who died last year were healthy, normal children.”
Thankfully, experts say that there’s still time. While pockets of flu activity are already appearing, it’s expected to ramp up soon. Even so, experts aren’t sure how severe this year’s flu season will be.
“We can’t predict what this season is going to be like,” Baker said. “You’re really gambling if you think it’s going to be a moderate season or you think your healthy child will be fine.”