A recent University of Michigan poll indicated that one-third of parents are unlikely to get their children vaccinated for influenza this year.
This is despite the fact that influenza vaccine is the single most effective strategy not only to prevent influenza but also to reduce the risk of severe symptoms and even death. Children are among the most vulnerable to influenza.
Influenza virus exists in a variety of strains, three to four of which predominate in circulation each season. These viral strains are subject to mutations each year, some profound and some more subtle. Each year, the seasonal influenza vaccine recipe is adjusted to reflect the most likely strains to affect the Northern Hemisphere, based on the strains found common that same year in the Southern Hemisphere. This permits time for preparation and manufacture of the vaccine.
Likewise, the severity of influenza varies from year to year. Yet, it is never a disease lacking consequence. Last year, the influenza season was especially harsh, with more than 80,000 deaths in the United States attributed to the virus. Among those were 179 children who died, of which 80 percent were unvaccinated. Hundreds more were hospitalized.
As a parent, there is no greater loss than the death of a child, especially when the death could have been prevented.
In the University of Michigan poll, the three top reasons why parents did not get their children vaccinated were a concern about side effects, a concern about effectiveness of the vaccine and the belief that their healthy child did not require vaccination. Let’s address each.
The modern injectable influenza vaccine is known as an inactivated split virus vaccine. After being grown in chicken eggs, the virus is killed and divided into pieces in the laboratory. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot get influenza infection from the inactivated flu vaccine. Side effects, when they rarely occur, are typically limited to pain at the injection site, and less commonly, fever of short duration. The vaccine has been used in hundreds of millions of people annually for many years and has a proven safety profile. As a pediatrician, I can assure you that each member of my family, including my three children, have been vaccinated yearly for many years.
Vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year and is certainly not 100 percent. This is partly because of the advance estimate of anticipated flu strains and potential mutations in the strains that may occur after vaccine manufacture starts. Some vaccinated people get the flu, though with less severe symptoms. Each year, the vaccine typically prevents flu symptoms for the majority of those vaccinated. Compared with other strategies, it also remains the most effective means at preventing or reducing flu symptoms.
Healthy children are indeed susceptible to influenza infection and severe illness. While most will recover without adverse effect, some will become severely ill and some may die from the illness. While certain risk factors enhance probability of severe illness, there is no way to reliably predict with certainty whom will have the most severe illness.
Every child should receive the influenza vaccine.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.