A new report underscores what health professionals know but parents
may not: The flu can be fatal to children, even healthy kids who don't
have other medical conditions.
Researchers with the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention found that 830 kids died from flu-related
complications between October 2004 and September 2012, and most of
those children had not gotten a flu vaccine. Pneumonia was the most
commonly reported complication among the kids who died. Their median age
The report also shows that 43% of the kids who died from
flu complications were otherwise healthy and didn't have high-risk
medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, certain types of cancer,
congenital heart defects or neurological disorders such as cerebral
palsy or epilepsy. Children with those types of health problems are at a
greater risk of dying from flu complications.
The CDC "recommends
that all children 6 months or older get the flu vaccine every year, and
this report shows that any child can be at risk for severe
complications from influenza," says the report's lead author, Karen
Wong, a CDC medical officer. These findings reinforce that "prevention
is the best strategy, and the best strategy we have is vaccination," she
"The most sobering message is that almost half of these
children had no underlying medical condition - these were normal,
healthy children," says William Schaffner, professor of preventive
medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of
Medicine. He was not involved in this report but is a member of the
CDC's advisory committee on immunization practices. "That's a profound
fact when you think about it. Everyone in the United States older than 6
months of age should be vaccinated against influenza."
says children younger than 9 who are receiving the vaccine for the
first time need two doses. "If they only get one, it's as though they
are not vaccinated that season."
CDC director Tom
Frieden says, "All too often, people dismiss flu as a mild illness, but
every year, children, including healthy children, die from flu."
The CDC says 56.6% of kids, ages 6 months to 17 years, got one or more doses of the flu vaccine during the 2012-13 season.
pediatric deaths from the influenza complications are reported to a
national surveillance system, but the numbers may be underestimated
because they include only deaths that were confirmed by a flu test, Wong
says. The tally of 830 deaths doesn't include the 167 pediatric deaths
from last year's flu season.
flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses
that infect the nose, throat and lungs, the CDC says. The flu can cause
mild to severe illness. Signs and symptoms include fever or feeling
feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or
body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and
diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Among the findings from the report, out in November's Pediatrics, published online Monday:
Of the 794 children who died whose medical history was known, 43% had
no high-risk medical conditions; 33% had neurological disorders; 12% had
genetic or chromosomal disorders.
• 35% of the children died
before hospital admission. "They died at home or on the way to the
hospital or in the emergency room," Wong says.
• Children without medical conditions were more likely to die before hospital admission.
• 63% of the children died within seven days of the onset of the flu symptoms.
Cerebral palsy, which affects less than 1% of the kids in this country,
was reported among 10% of children who died while infected with the
flu. Kids with medical conditions such as this should definitely get a
vaccine every year, and, as an additional way to protect them, everyone
in the household should, too, Wong says.
One reason people may not
get a flu shot: "There is a myth that the flu vaccine can cause the
flu, but that's what it is - a myth. It does not cause the flu," she
Schaffner says, "The vaccine isn't perfect, but it's good. You might
still get the flu, but if you do, it will be a milder case and you are
less likely to get the complications of pneumonia, hospitalization and
Some facts about the flu:
• Complications of
flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections,
dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as
congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.
• Most experts
believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with
flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or
noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu
by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then
touching his own mouth, eyes or possibly nose.
• Certain people
are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. They
include older people, young children, pregnant women and people with
certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease),
as well as those who live in facilities such as nursing homes.
Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. Over a period of 30
years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of annual flu-associated deaths
in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention