The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly influenza surveillance report for the United States shows that the 2016-17 influenza season is finally winding down. It’s been an average (ie. terrible) season. While thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of adults die each year directly from influenza infections or indirectly from complications from those infections, many thousands more become ill from the virus and eventually recover. It’s been known for decades that the worst cases of influenza can be prevented by receiving a simple flu vaccine each year.
Sickness from influenza is more common in the pediatric population but results in fewer deaths compared to adults. Still, children do die every year from influenza, including healthy children who have no underlying medical conditions:
Since 2004, the number of influenza-associated deaths among children younger than age 18 has ranged from 37 in the 2011-2012 season to 358 during a 2009 pandemic.
The CDC reports 61 influenza-associated deaths among children so far this flu season. Average-terrible. And like adults, children benefit greatly from receiving annual flu vaccines. A new study, published online last week in Pediatrics, demonstrates that kids’ risk of dying from influenza is lower when they receive influenza vaccine. Much lower in fact, says Agata Blasczcak-Boxe:
Overall, the flu vaccine reduced the risk of death from the disease by half among the kids with high-risk conditions, and by nearly two-thirds among kids without such conditions, the researchers found.
The researchers looked into 291 pediatric deaths from influenza between 2010-2014. Three-quarters (74%) of U.S. kids who died from influenza complications during this five year span were unvaccinated. Amy Norton says the researchers estimate that 65% of these deaths would have been prevented if parents had immunized their children:
“This shows you, once again, that kids should get their flu shot,” said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
It also highlights a fact that many parents may not know: “Healthy children can, and do, die of the flu,” said Offit, who was not involved in the research.
Fortunately, that is rare. But when it happens, “it’s a tragedy,” said Brendan Flannery, a researcher at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who led the study.
“People often don’t consider the flu to be very serious,” Flannery said. “But it can be, and even children can die.”
Kids who are perfectly healthy can become severely ill with the flu and develop complications such as pneumonia. But the risk is higher among children with certain medical conditions, including asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.
Flannery’s team found that a flu shot can cut the risk of death among both healthy kids and those with “high-risk” medical conditions.
Only about half of American children receive flu vaccines every year. And while the flu vaccine, which changes year to year depending on circulating viral strains, is not perfect (you can still get sick — and you can die — even if you receive a vaccine), this study demonstrates that it significantly reduces the risk of dying from influenza and its complications.
We’ve used a lot of space on this blog encouraging parents to immunize their children, themselves, and those around them against influenza each and every year. Children can’t immunize themselves. It is a parental duty to protect them. The risk of an adverse vaccine reaction is infinitesimal; the risk of getting sick and even dying from influenza, even if otherwise healthy, is much, much higher — especially without the benefit of a flu vaccine. In a few short months, your pediatrician will begin offering flu vaccines for the 2017-18 influenza season. Many parents will, as they do every year, gladly accept the protection the vaccine offers for their children and for themselves. Other parents will find some excuse to not accept the wise counsel of their pediatrician, taking a chance on their children’s lives that is, to put it kindly, inadvisable. As some will later discover — as tragically, parents do every year — it will be the ultimate unforced error. The most pediatricians can do is encourage these resistant parents to reconsider.