Flu shots for tots ineffective

October 7, 2008 9:07:27 AM PDT
Flu shots did not reduce doctors' visits or the risk of hospitalization related to the flu in children age five and younger in the past two flu seasons, according to a new study. In the report published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers concluded that the vaccine's lack of effectiveness in previous seasons may be attributed to its not matching the circulating flu strain.

The report comes amid the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice's latest push to expand the age recommended to receive the flu vaccine to children ages 6 months to 18 years old.

Despite the results of the study, Lyn Finelli of the CDC's influenza surveillance program says the organization's recommendations on who should get the flu vaccine will not change.

"This year, the match between the circulating strains looks very good," said Finelli.

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.

Influenza is one of the leading causes of death among children. According to the CDC, 72 children died from the flu last year.

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."

Superbug: Flu Shot Still Important?

One of the most compelling reasons to get a flu shot this year may be the fatal super bug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a type of drug-resistant bacteria that can cause outbreaks of deadly pneumonia, which typically piggyback on the flu.

A recent study, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, found MRSA contributed to 30 percent of flu deaths in the 2006-2007 flu season. The studies showed an increase over the past three years in the proportion of children who both died from influenza and were infected with MRSA.

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."

Partial Protection Better Than None

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.

But can the flu shot keep you alive?

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.

Cold and Flu Precautions

"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."


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