The Truth About the Flu Vaccine

More than half of parents have doubts about it. We asked experts to give us the lowdown on how it works and who should get immunized.
Mom holding baby before a vaccine

ALEXANDRA GRABLEWSKI

The 2012-13 flu season took a serious toll on families: 158 children--most of them younger than 11--died. That's almost five times the number of children who were victims of the flu during the previous season. "Influenza struck early and hard," says Dean Blumberg, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC-Davis Children's Hospital, in Sacramento. Kids with chronic medical conditions such as asthma and diabetes are especially vulnerable--and yet 40 percent of the children who died during the last flu season had no prior health problem. And, sadly, about 90 percent of those who died missed out on the one thing that could have saved them: a flu vaccination.

Despite studies proving that flu vaccinations are a lifesaver, less than half of all children in the United States (and even fewer parents) are immunized each year. Fear and misinformation cause many families to take their chances with this potentially fatal respiratory virus. One recent survey from Ipsos Public Affairs, a social-research company, found that 16 percent of Americans consider the vaccine to be unsafe and 35 percent believe the vaccine causes the flu. "The tragedy is that children continue to die from an illness that is largely preventable," says Dr. Blumberg. Because awareness and education are key to making smart decisions about your family's health, we went to the experts to get clear-cut information about the flu and the vaccine.

THE FEAR My baby already gets too many shots.
REALITY CHECK Doctors hear this from many parents, but they want moms and dads to understand that children ages 6 months to 5 years are at a high risk of serious flu-related complications like pneumonia, dehydration, and hospitalization. In fact, an average of 20,000 kids ages 5 and younger are hospitalized with the flu every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than a third of the children who died during the 2012-13 flu season were under age 4. "Their immature immune system is still developing the ability to make antibodies to fight off sickness," explains Mary Glode, M.D., head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Hospital Colorado, in Aurora. That's why kids 8 and under who are vaccinated for the first time need two separate doses at least 28 days apart. The first one primes their immune system, while the second starts providing protection.

THE FEAR The vaccine can cause the flu.
REALITY CHECK It's impossible for the killed or inactivated viruses in the flu shot to cause illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nasal-spray vaccine does contain live flu strains, but they're too weak to make you sick. Some people who get the nasal spray do experience reactions such as a runny nose, a sore throat, or fatigue. "These side effects--which are mild and short-lived compared with the actual flu--indicate that your body is building up antibodies to fight flu," explains Pedro Piedra, M.D., pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. If you or your child truly gets sick with the flu soon after being vaccinated, it means the virus had entered your system prior to or shortly after you got the vaccine.

THE FEAR My child has an egg allergy and the vaccine will cause a reaction.
REALITY CHECK Both the shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine contain trace amounts of egg allergen because the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs, which is why kids with egg allergies have traditionally been told to avoid them. However, a December 2012 study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that the amount of egg protein is too low to cause a reaction even in those who have a severe egg allergy. Still, your doctor may want to monitor your egg-allergic child for reactions for 30 minutes when she gets the vaccine for the first time. (A new egg-free flu shot, Flublok, should be available this season for adults; a version for children is expected to be on the market in the next few years.)

What You Should Know About the Flu
What You Should Know About the Flu

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