If you're unsure whether to vaccinate your children against the flu this year, look to the American Academy of Pediatrics' 2017 flu vaccine recommendations, released today in the journal Pediatrics. The AAP says that the vaccine should be given to everyone 6 months and older, and the best time to get vaccinated is by the end of October, if possible.
The flu can be deadly
Although persistent controversy exists around the efficacy of the flu vaccine, those fears are unfounded. Instead, what's truly worrisome are the devastating effects of influenza. According to the AAP, more than 100 children in the US died from the flu last year, with thousands more hospitalized. Historically, more than 80 percent of children who die from the flu are not vaccinated, and vaccination rates have been suboptimal in the past seven seasons.
"Because the flu virus is common and unpredictable, it can cause serious complications even in healthy children," says AAP spokesperson Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP. "We know the best way to protect against complications from influenza is to have families immunized."
And although the flu vaccine doesn't protect against every strand of the virus, it still provides the best chance of keeping your family safe. "The flu vaccine is an every year, essential vaccine as the strains included in the vaccine shift each year based on the types of flu predicted," Dr. Swanson says.
This year's vaccine comes in either a formulation that protects against three or four strains of the virus, some that are the same as last year with others that are different. The AAP advises the vaccine to be given by injection. "This year, like last year, the nasal flu spray is not recommended," Dr. Swanson says, as it hasn't perform well in recent seasons.
Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers of young infants should also be vaccinated, in order that their babies receive some protection, as well. "Pregnant women can help protect themselves and their unborn children by getting the vaccine," Dr. Swanson says. "Flu shots are safe anytime during pregnancy. When mom gets a flu vaccine, she protects herself and creates antibodies that she passes to her baby."
Vaccination is the best protection
You might think young children who have medical conditions should avoid the vaccine, but the exact opposite is true. The AAP says that it's even more important for babies (over 6 months) who were born preterm or children who have asthma, lung diseases, heart disease, diabetes or weakened immune systems to get the vaccine, because they are more likely to have life-threatening complications from the flu.
There are antiviral drugs that can weaken the flu's effects should your child get sick, although they have to be given within 48 hours of the start of symptoms to be most effective. But these meds shouldn't be a substitute for vaccination, as they don't prevent the spread of the virus as well. It's better for your child not to get sick in the first place.
Despite what you may have heard, the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu. It's inactivated, meaning it does not contain a live virus and so can't lead to actually getting sick. "The flu shot is your best shot at keeping your family healthy from the flu," Dr. Swanson says. "I get my own children immunized each and every year."