Each year in the United States alone, 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized due to complications from the flu. In 2014, influenza claimed the lives of more than 140 children; half of whom were healthy and had not been vaccinated.
“It’s important for everyone – especially children – to get a flu shot every year,” said Dr. Matthew Kronman, an infectious disease expert at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a member of theat Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
Below, Kronman answers some common questions related to the flu and flu shots.
Why is the flu dangerous? What happens to make it deadly?
Influenza by its very nature can cause infection and inflammation in the lungs, making it very difficult for some people to breathe. Add to this that people with influenza can be at risk of having a secondary bacterial infection on top of their influenza, and that sometimes the immune response to an influenza infection is overly robust to the point of causing damage itself, and it becomes clear how influenza can cause serious and even life-threatening infections. Fortunately, we have a vaccine annually that can help protect us from this severe infection!
Are there any groups of people who are particularly at risk if they don’t get a flu shot?
While it is true that certain individuals are at higher risk of developing complications of the flu, the idea that the flu is only a threat to the incredibly young, the elderly and the sick is misleading. Yes, these groups are more susceptible, but plenty of healthy people are hospitalized and die due to influenza every year. Many of these consequences could be prevented if more individuals were vaccinated.
It was widely reported that the flu vaccine was less effective last year than in years prior, is there a reason for this?
Yes, and this is important to address. The thing about influenza is that it is constantly evolving and changing over time. This is the reason that an individual can be infected by influenza multiple times, as opposed to only getting the chicken pox once.
Each year, the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alters the recommendations for what strains should be in the flu vaccine based on research-informed predictions of what strains of influenza will be prevalent in the coming flu season. But predictions are just that – predictions. Therefore, it is perfectly natural for the flu vaccine to range in overall effectiveness from year to year.
The flu vaccine was roughly 20 percent effective last year. Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen the effectiveness of the vaccine range from as high as 60 percent to as low as 10 percent. I know that even at the high end these numbers may not blow anyone away, but consider:
- Being vaccinated is the single most effective tool we have in preventing the spread influenza.
- The flu vaccine was estimated to prevent 7.2 million illnesses and 90,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. alone in 2014.
Does it matter whether someone gets a flu shot or the nasal spray?
People between the ages of 2 and 49 who are generally healthy and not pregnant may receive either the shot or nasal spray. Your healthcare provider will help you choose the right form and number of doses for you and your family.
If children can’t get the shot vaccine until six months of age, how do we go about safeguarding babies from the flu?
A newborn cannot get a flu shot, but his mother can while still pregnant, which will protect the baby for months after the baby is born. This is an area where we have been trying to do a lot of outreach, as only 50 percent of pregnant women were vaccinated last year. Pregnant women themselves are also at a higher risk for developing serious complications from the flu, so we really want to see that percentage climb in the years to come.
If the mother doesn’t get a flu shot, then the baby will not be protected from the flu after being born. In such situations, preventative actions like staying away from people who are sick, washing hands often with soap and water and covering coughs become all the more important. We also encourage the practice of “cocooning,” in which the parents and caregivers ensure that everyone who surrounds the infant is vaccinated.
This again comes back to the main point, in that the more people who are vaccinated, the safer all of us will be collectively.