Only about four out of 10 U.S. babies are getting vaccinated against the flu, but the CDC recommends the shot for all kids 6 months and older.
baby getting vaccinated by doctor
Credit: Ian Hooton/Getty Images

The flu is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness. Each year an average of 20,000 children younger than 5 are hospitalized from complications due to flu, and during last year's flu season, more than 140 children died from this common illness, according to the CDC.

And yet, only about four out of 10 U.S. babies ages six to 23 months are getting a flu vaccine, according to federal health officials. Between the 2002-2003 and 2011-2012 seasons, the number of infants who received flu shots increased from just under 5 percent to almost 45 percent, according to a new study. But that number still falls far short of the recommendation that all children six months and older get a flu shot every year.

"While flu vaccination for children has gone up, there is still a long way to go to protect every child," said study lead researcher Tammy Santibanez, an epidemiologist with CDC's National Immunization Program.

For the study, Santibanez and colleagues used data from the National Immunization Survey to estimate influenza vaccination among children aged six to 23 months based on doctors' reports. In the 10 flu seasons studied, black and Hispanic children had lower rates of vaccination than white children, Santibanez said, and complete vaccination coverage was higher among children who needed only one dose, compared with those requiring two doses. Depending on age and vaccination history, children need either one or two doses of vaccine to be fully protected.

"Vaccination is the first and most important step parents can take to protect their family against the flu," Santibanez said. "Both parents and doctors can work together to do a better job at ensuring that children are fully vaccinated and protected."

Parents also needs to understand just how deadly the flu virus is. Dr. Jefry Biehler, chairman of pediatrics at Nicklaus Children's Hospital, recently treated a young girl who nearly died from heart complications brought on by a bout with it. "The parents didn't realize how serious the flu can be," he said. "Many parents still believe that the flu is a bad cold and it's nothing to worry about."

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website for more, and follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.