Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Although influenza-associated deaths in children and adolescents are rare, many of the deaths could have been prevented if the children had been vaccinated against the flu, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study
, which is published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
, found that there were 115 influenza-associated deaths among individuals aged 18 and younger from September 2010 through August 2011.
“It’s vital that children get vaccinated,” said Lyn Finelli, MD, chief of the CDC’s Surveillance and Outbreak Response Team, in a statement
. “We know the flu vaccine isn’t 100% effective, especially not in children with high risk medical conditions. That’s why it’s essential that these 2 medical tools be fully utilized. Vaccinate first; then use influenza antiviral drugs as a second line of defense against the flu. Right now we aren’t fully using the medical tools at our disposal to prevent flu illnesses and deaths in children.”
Since 2004, states have been required to report influenza-associated deaths in children and teenagers, enabling CDC researchers to more closely examine the factors that can increase risk.
Among the most notable findings was the infrequent use vaccination, “the most important influenza prevention measure,” the report stated. Despite a recommendation for vaccination of all children 6 months of age and older having been in place since 2008, only 23% of the 74 children older than 6 months with a known vaccination history had received their flu vaccine last season.
This is important because of the children who died last season, about half were previously healthy and did not have a medical condition that would put them at risk for flu complications. However, the report underscores the fact that young age in itself is a risk factor. The report identified that 46% of the children who died were younger than 5 years and 29% were younger than 2 years.
The report also identified issues with the use of antiviral drugs, which provide effective treatment for influenza. Of the 94 children who died in a hospital or emergency department, only 50% were prescribed antiviral drugs. Since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic especially, CDC has recommended immediate treatment with influenza antiviral medications in severely ill patients with suspected flu.
Another report in the Sept. 16 MMWR
provides a summary of influenza activity from mid-May to the beginning of September. “If trends in that report continue,” Finelli says, “we should have a vaccine that will offer good protection against the viruses we expect will circulate this season.”
This season’s influenza vaccine protects against three influenza viruses, the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus. These are the same 3 flu virus strains that were circulating in 2010–2011, marking just the eighth time since 1969 this phenomenon has occurred. Moreover, it is important to note that vaccine immunity wanes over time; therefore, the CDC is recommending that all individuals are vaccinated this season, even if they were vaccinated last season.