There is no doubt that vaccines are life-saving, and their development is one of the most important contributions to medical science in the past century. There are about a dozen regularly recommended adult vaccines, and kids in the US receive about 16 shots before the age of 2. New vaccines are being developed all the time.
With this year’s flu season just around the corner, a recent poll suggests that only 44% of parents have their children vaccinated against influenza. I decided to interview two pediatricians about the influenza vaccine, to find out more about it.
Dr. Ben Spitalnick is Assistant Clinical Professor, Mercer University School of Medicine, Savannah, Georgia. Dr. Stacy Stryer is Revolution Health’s pediatric specialist in private practice in Virginia. She offers a post-script at the end of the interview.
Dr. Val: What is the AAP’s current recommendation regarding vaccinating children against influenza?
Dr. Spitalnik: This is the first year that the AAP (as well as the ACIP) has recommended flu vaccination for all children age 6 months to age 18 years, regardless of whether or not they fall into the “high risk” medical categories that have been used as screening parameters in recent years. In addition, they recommend vaccination of pregnant women and all health care providers. Finally, they recommend vaccination of household contacts and out-of-home providers of all children under 5 years of age, and similar contacts of children older than 5 with high risk health conditions.
Dr. Val: What percent of parents vaccinate their children against influenza?
Dr. Spitalnik: While over 80% of parents recognize that there is an influenza vaccine available, data show that only about 44% of parents have had their child vaccinated against influenza in the past. In addition, despite the AAP’s broader recommendations regarding flu vaccination, still less than half (about 48%) plan to vaccinate against the flu this coming year. While there are plenty of possible reasons why vaccination rates are so low, health providers owe it to their patients to continue to find ways to improve delivery of and education about the influenza vaccine.
Dr. Val: What did the National Parent-Child Survey uncover about parents’ attitudes towards flu vaccines?
Dr. Spitalnik: The National Parent-Child Survey certainly provided some eye-opening data. While experts recognize that getting an annual flu vaccine is the single best way to protect yourself or your child from catching influenza, the survey shows that parents rank the flu vaccine sixth in importance to prevent the flu. Specifically, parents in this survey believe that hand washing, adequate sleep, balanced diet, avoiding sick contacts, and taking vitamins are better ways to protect against the flu. This helps emphasize the point that the health care community must continue to find ways to educate the public about influenza, and more importantly, its prevention.
Dr. Val: If someone has the flu, how can they help to prevent their child from getting it?
Dr. Spitalnik: Chances are this year, as with most years, almost every child will be in close contact with someone that has the flu. While hand washing, avoiding sick contacts, and getting adequate rest and nutrition may help against the flu, the single most effective way to prevent a child from getting the flu is having the child vaccinated. While protection after vaccination is fairly quick, it is not instantaneous, so waiting until your child is exposed to the flu is not the best approach. Instead, follow the recommendations of your health care provider and get vaccinated at the right time, and don’t wait until it may be too late.
Dr. Val: How dangerous is the flu virus to children? Are there any subgroups of children at higher risk?
Dr. Spitalnik: The flu is a significant danger to children, though the public doesn’t seem to appreciate the risk, which could be why vaccination rates are so low. While many feel the flu is nothing more than a severe form of the “common cold”, in reality it can lead to very high fever, dehydration, pneumonia, and can even be fatal. In fact, Influenza is the single leading cause of vaccine-preventable disease in the U.S., with estimates between 15 million and 60 million cases in the US a year among all age groups. Influenza leads to 200,000 hospitalizations and about 36,000 deaths a year in the U.S., mostly in infants and the elderly.
There are certain subgroups of children that are at higher risk for complications from the flu. These include children with asthma or other chronic lung conditions, certain heart diseases, patients who have weakened immune systems including HIV, sickle cell anemia, kidney disease, diabetes, and others. These are groups that we offer flu vaccines to first, when the vaccine is in short supply. The list above is not comprehensive, and any patient with a specific question about their own child’s medical conditions should contact their physician.
Dr. Val: Does the recent resurgence of measles tell us anything about parents’ attitudes towards childhood vaccinations?
Dr. Spitalnik: Yes, it certainly does. Cases of measles in the U.S. are at their highest level in more than a decade, with half of these cases in patients from families that rejected the measles vaccine. Many of the other cases were from exposures to these unvaccinated patients, but in children who were not yet old enough to receive the measles vaccination. I know that some physicians are asking parents (who refuse to vaccinate their children) to find a new doctor. They’re worried that other families’ infants may be exposed in the waiting room to kids with measles.
While some parents are refusing vaccines for their kids, there is impressive data from Japan clearly demonstrating the life-saving value of vaccinating children against influenza. In the 1960’s, the death rate in Japan from pneumonia and Influenza (P&I) was approximately 10 per 100,000. Over the next decade flu vaccination in the schools was made optional and then mandatory, and by the 1980’s the death rate from P&I showed a steady decline, eventually down to 4 in 100,000 – a significant reduction. In 1987, however, parents were allowed to refuse vaccination, and in a decade death rates quickly rose back up to near their 1960’s levels.
There is clearly more we need to do to help educate our patients about vaccines, not just with influenza. Specifically, however, flu vaccine education has its own hurdles, and I hope this year we all do a better job protecting our patients from this dangerous disease.
Dr. Val: What’s the most important thing that parents should know about the flu vaccine?
Dr. Spitalnik: If I had to choose one it would be that the flu vaccine, in any form, is the single best way to protect your child from the flu, which can be a serious threat to their health, and is now recommended for ALL children age 6 months to 18 years.
In addition, parents need to know that the flu vaccine is better than ever this year: First of all, there does not appear to be any shortage of supply. Second, all 3 strains of the vaccine have been changed to help ensure stronger protection. And finally, there is more than one way to get the flu vaccination, both the traditional shot and an intranasal spray, both of which should be available from their health care provider early this flu season.
P.S. By Dr. Stacy Stryer: Dr. Spitalnick offers some very good information and advice regarding the flu vaccine. While certain high risk groups, such as infants (ages 6 months and up), children with asthma and other chronic diseases, and those who are immunosuppressed are all at a greater risk of developing severe complications if they contract the flu, it is also possible for healthy children to develop complications from the influenza virus. Dr. Spitalnick discussed the best way to prevent children from contracting the flu, which is by receiving the vaccine. There are two forms of influenza protection available, the nasal spray and the traditional injection. The nasal spray, FluMist, may only be given to children ages 2 and older, and is contraindicated for children with asthma, several chronic diseases, and severe egg allergies, yet is more protective than the injection. Good hygiene, such as frequent handwashing and keeping hands away from the face, can also help reduce the risk of contracting the flu.
*Dr. Spitalnik has been a speaker for Glaxo Smith Kline and MedImmune. Dr. Stryer has nothing to disclose.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.