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Flu Vaccine Rates Remain Low in Children Despite Recommendations

Researchers call for evidence-based guidelines for lab testing and treatment (Jan. 10)

This year’s influenza season is in full swing, with 41 states now reporting widespread illness, and the flu is likely to continue spreading.

According to a new study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., not enough children are getting flu shots even though health officials recommend that all children 6 months and older receive the vaccine. The study found that less than 45% of children were vaccinated against the flu during a 5-year period (2004 — 2009).

“Our research showed that one in six children under age 5 who went to an emergency department or clinic with fever and respiratory symptoms during the peak flu seasons had the flu,” said lead author Katherine Poehling, MD. “Many of those illnesses could have been prevented by vaccination, the best known protection against the flu.”

The researchers found that children less than 6 months of age had the highest hospitalization rates with flu. “Parents should include a yearly flu shot to protect themselves and their children,” Poehling said. “The best way to protect infants too young to receive the influenza vaccine is for pregnant women, the infant’s family members, and contacts to get the shot, too.”

The study reported population-based data on confirmed flu cases in children younger than 5 years old in three counties in Ohio, New York, and Tennessee. More than 8,000 children seen in inpatient, emergency-department, and clinic settings were included during five flu seasons from 2004 through 2009.

During the study period, the researchers found that the overall flu vaccination coverage changed little, whereas the rates of influenza hospitalization and the prevalence of influenza among outpatients varied annually. The proportion of infants younger than 6 months old diagnosed with flu increased to 48%, compared with 28% in a previous study (2000 — 2004) conducted by the same research team.

However, for children aged 6 months to 5 years, the proportion diagnosed with the flu remained similar in both studies. These data suggest that doctors’ awareness of the flu in young infants has increased, the researchers say.

The study also showed that seasonal flu remains an important cause of hospitalization, emergency-department, and outpatient visits among children, and that tools known to reduce flu rates — vaccination and antiviral medications — were underused, Poehling said.

The researchers believe that additional efforts are needed for greater dissemination and use of the existing recommendation for the vaccination of children aged 6 months and older and of pregnant women, which partially protects younger infants. Moreover, the investigators say that evidence-based guidelines for laboratory testing and therapeutic options, including antiviral medications, need to be developed and disseminated.

Source: Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center; January 10, 2013.

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