Many parents have expressed concern over the last few months that this year’s influenza vaccine may be less effective than in years past and wondering, “Should my kids get the flu shot this year?” These concerns stem from data released after Australia’s flu season, where recent reports indicated low effectiveness of the vaccine.
“We’re using the same vaccine here in the United States, so people think it won’t be effective,” says Dr. Jasjit Singh, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director of infection prevention and control at CHOC.
These doubts are misguided, says Singh. Although reports show Australia’s vaccine was only 10 percent effective, that data was specifically looking at the H3N2 strain that had dominated the southern hemisphere this year, she says. Effectiveness against the same strain in the US has been as high as 30-40 percent, and even higher against other strains of influenza in the past.
“We can’t take that one statistic and apply it to all strains of the flu in the US this season,” Singh says.
It’s important for parents to remember that the although the vaccine helps prevent children and adults from getting the flu, physicians are especially concerned with preventing influenza-related hospitalizations or even death.
“People forget that children and adults can die from influenza. So far in the U.S. there have been nine pediatric flu-related deaths this season,” Singh says.
Since the 2004-2005 flu season, flu-related deaths in children have ranged from 37 to 171 each season, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics examined vaccine effectiveness in 291 pediatric influenza-associated pediatric deaths from 2010-2014. Vaccine effectiveness was 51 percent in children with high-risk conditions, compared to 65 percent in children without high-risk conditions.
“This shows that many of our deaths are in otherwise healthy children,” Singh says.
Although it’s best to get vaccinated early in the season, it’s better to be vaccinated later in the winter than not at all.
“Very often, people get vaccinated because someone they know has the flu. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so if your child has been exposed to the flu in that time period, they can still get sick,” she says.
Parents should remember that children cannot get from the flu from getting a flu shot.
“The vaccine is not a live vaccine, so it’s impossible to get the flu from getting a flu shot,” Singh says. “the vaccine prevents influenza virus, but during winter months there are many other viruses that cause colds and respiratory viruses, that are usually milder than the flu.”
Those who decline a flu shot because they “never get the flu” still need to be vaccinated, she adds.
“It’s important to remember that some people may have minimal symptoms, but can still pass the virus to others who may be vulnerable to more severe disease.”
The single best way to protect your child from the flu is by getting them vaccinated each year. In addition to receiving an annual influenza vaccine, there are other things parents and caregivers can do to help prevent the flu. Use proper hand-washing techniques, use respiratory etiquette, and stay home from work or school if you are sick with the flu, to prevent spreading it to others.