Historically, influenza is a dreadful disease and this year is no exception. So far in this still-early flu season, more than 30 children in the United States have died of the flu or its complications. Globally, the World Health Organization offers these grim influenza statistics:
Illnesses range from mild to severe and even death. Hospitalization and death occur mainly among high risk groups. Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths.
During the 2014-15 flu season, there were more than 35 million cases of flu in the U.S., with 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths. The leading flu strain responsible for that flu outbreak — influenza A (H3N2) — is the same one causing the current epidemic.
In developed countries like the United States, most deaths from influenza occur in people typically considered vulnerable from a public health standpoint, especially the elderly, infants and young children, fetuses, and those with chronic medical conditions. Even though we know (because we see it every year) that influenza can kill anyone, including children and adults who are in excellent physical shape, these fatal cases continue to leave us surprised when we hear about them:
80% of flu deaths occur in adults 65 years of age and older, most occurring from secondary pneumonias, and influenza-associated sepsis (overwhelming infection and organ failure) and heart attacks. (A recent study found a 6-fold risk of having a heart attack during the first 7 days of flu symptoms in adults compared to a control group who didn’t have the flu.) Children are different, says Susan Scutti, especially in their responses to flu vaccines:
This is due to the lack of “immunologic experience” that children have. The immune system in infants is “still developing and it has different responses, let’s say, to new things,” said Munoz. “Young children will not necessarily have the same response that older children, adolescents or adults have.” The same is true for very old people, said Munoz: “That’s just a normal way the immune system works.”
This is a huge reason infants and children under the age of 9 who have never received them get two flu shots one month apart their first year. After that, it’s important they — we — receive a booster dose of flu vaccine every year.
Most (85%) of children who die from influenza or its complications typically aren’t able to get the shot against it (infants less than 6 months old and kids who have medical contraindications precluding its administration), or skip it altogether. Last week, CDC Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald issued an urgent appeal aimed specifically at parents who are most responsible for protecting their children and their vulnerable friends during this severe epidemic:
“My message is, if you haven’t gotten a vaccine, please get a vaccine. Also, please get your children vaccinated,” said Fitzgerald, who is urging citizens “to take every advantage that you can to protect yourself.”
Even though this year’s flu shot appears to be about 30% effective in completely preventing flu symptoms in exposed individuals, Julie Steenhuysen says a flu vaccine is still the best bet for protection, even now as the flu season is about to peak:
Studies have shown that even a vaccine that has lower overall effectiveness can decrease the number of days spent in hospital, duration of the flu and the degree of symptoms.
It’s not too late. If you have not already done so, get a flu shot now. Don’t let the flu make you or a loved one a front-page headline.
Read our extensive coverage of influenza and flu vaccines here.
*** On January 22, 2018, Pediatric Alliance and our pediatric colleagues from around the United States began participating in an 8-week AAP-sponsored immunization advocacy campaign on social media. Please follow all our social media posts during this project on Facebook and Twitter.