Although children and teenagers rarely die from flu-related causes, 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 (CDC).
The study reports 115 influenza-associated deaths of people younger than 18, from September 2010 through August 2011 and highlights the importance of both annual vaccination and rapid antiviral treatment.
"Its vital that children get vaccinated," says Dr. Lyn Finelli, chief of the CDCs Surveillance and Outbreak Response Team. "We know the flu vaccine isnt 100 percent effective, especially not in children with high risk medical conditions. Thats why its essential that these two medical tools be fully utilized. Vaccinate first; then use influenza antiviral drugs as a second line of defense against the flu. Right now we arent fully using the medical tools at our disposal to prevent flu illnesses and deaths in children."
The study in CDCs Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report provides details on the deaths. Since 2004, states have been required to report influenza-associated deaths in children and teenagers, giving the CDC a chance to look closely at factors that can increase risk.
Among the most notable findings was the infrequent use of the most important influenza prevention measure vaccination. Despite a recommendation for vaccination of all children 6 months of age and older having been in place since 2008, only 23 percent of the 74 children older than six months with a known vaccination history had received their flu vaccine last season.
While many people believe that healthy children can withstand a bout of flu, this is not always the case. About half of the children who died last season 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 percent of the children who died were younger than 5 years and 29 percent were younger than 2 years.
The other half of the children who died did have a medical condition that predisposed them to being at greater risk of flu complications. Of 57 children with a medical condition, 54 percent had a neurological disorder, 30 percent had pulmonary disease, 25 percent had a chromosome or genetic disorder and 19 percent had congenital heart disease or other cardiac disease.
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 percent 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 seasons 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 three flu virus strains that were circulating in 2010-2011 just the eighth time since 1969 this phenomenon has occurred. Moreover, it is important to note that vaccine immunity wanes over time so CDC is recommending that everyone get vaccinated this season, even if they got vaccinated last season, in order to be optimally protected.