Parents, be more flu-aware — this year and every year
Feb 01, 2010

By Carol Baker, MD
[Ed note: Dr. Carol Baker has blogged for Shot of Prevention on the importance of flu vaccination before. We thought her piece in the Houston Chronicle was worth re-posting here as well.]
Originally ran in Houston Chronicle 
Ever since the new H1N1 virus started making people ill last spring, it has become harder for parents in my practice to shrug off influenza as “not much more than a cold.” We’ve seen what flu can do: close schools and camps; send sales of surgical masks and anti-bacterial gels through the roof; overburden hospital emergency rooms; cause death — not among the elderly but in children and pregnant women.

It troubles me to learn from a recent report that more than 80 percent of Texas children under age 10 who received their first H1N1 influenza dose have not yet received their second, and so are not fully protected.

A recent survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that the heightened attention on H1N1 influenza has indeed caused a spike in parents’ interest in influenza vaccination for their children. Sixty-two percent of mothers surveyed said they intended to have their children vaccinated this year for seasonal influenza, H1N1 or both; only 35 percent said their children had previously received annual influenza vaccination. This is certainly a meaningful increase, but one that still leaves a significant sector of parents not yet sure about the merits of influenza vaccination.

As a pediatrician, I believe the time has come for parents to make their vaccination decisions based on fact — rather than misperceptions fueled by “magical” or wishful thinking. NFID’s study revealed just how widespread these misperceptions are among mothers. Nearly two-thirds of respondents who had chosen not to annually vaccinate their children for influenza believe a healthy child doesn’t need a flu vaccine. Approximately 100 pediatric influenza deaths have occurred each year. Already more than 1,100 children, many previously healthy and some from Texas, have died of H1N1 influenza.

Nearly six in 10 mothers surveyed think other ways to skirt influenza are just as effective as vaccination, swearing by strategies like staying away from crowds, eating healthier, sleeping longer. The fact is, secondary prevention measures like hand and cough hygiene have their place, but the only sure way to prevent flu is through vaccination.

We also learned mothers sometimes forgo influenza vaccination for their kids because their pediatricians let them decide — a sense of autonomy they don’t get with required childhood vaccines. But this freedom of choice can be a double-edged sword if mothers lack the facts needed to make the proper choice to help keep their child healthy. Mothers aren’t aware that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend influenza vaccination annually for all children 6 months through 18 years of age.

Historically, influenza vaccination rates begin to drop after November — not even halfway into what is generally recognized as the annual influenza season. And that may be why children in Texas have not received their second dose. Second doses should be administered within four weeks of the first dose, but even getting the second dose a few weeks late ensures protection.

In this pandemic year, seven months of uninterrupted media coverage has placed influenza front and center in our consciousness. Fortunately, recent news from the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services relays that flu activity has decreased during the past few weeks, but it is possible another wave of H1N1 influenza can appear, so it is best to be protected.

If you have children, understand that in this pandemic year— and every year — vaccination is the most effective way to prevent a disease that annually hospitalizes approximately 20,000 kids. Realize that it’s impossible to predict which healthy child — or adult — could become influenza’s next victim. You have the choice. Choose wisely and protect your entire family’s health.

Dr. Baker is past president, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; chair of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices; professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine; and executive director of the Center for Vaccine Awareness at Texas Children’s Hospital.

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