Friday, October 17, 2008
It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, Halloween decorations are appearing, and that can only mean one thing. It’s time to get your flu shot.
Every year, the flu shot changes, because every year the strain of influenza virus that circulates changes. Last year’s flu shot does not protect you this year. So every year, people need a new shot.
It also seems that every year, the official recommendation for who needs a flu shot changes as well. This year is no exception. This year, the Centers for Disease Control, the agency that makes the official recommendations, has said that all children over the age of 6 months should be vaccinated against influenza.
The State of New Jersey has taken this recommendation to heart, and this year is requiring influenza vaccination for children to be allowed to attend preschools and day care centers. This law sparked a protest outside of the New Jersey Statehouse on October 16 by parents who oppose this requirement.
Personally, I think this was a good decision, based on sound science. States already require immunization against a large and growing number of infections for all children who attend school. So the idea of requiring a flu shot to attend school (even if it’s preschool) is not out of line with current policies.
In fact, influenza vaccine is probably more important than some of the others that are routinely given. For example, children are required to receive a diphtheria immunization (that’s the D in DTP and DTaP). Prior to universal immunization, diphtheria was a feared disease, and there were 13,000-15,000 deaths in the US every year from diphtheria. Between 1998 and 2004 there were 7 cases in total reported to the CDC. In contrast, every year on average 200,000 Americans are hospitalized because of influenza, and 36,000 of them die. Children are at risk as well. Every year an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized for complications of influenza. Getting influenza is also a risk factor for potentially serious bacterial infections in children.
Another important factor is that children easily spread influenza to their parents and other household contacts. My colleagues at the University of Maryland demonstrated that a school-based influenza immunization program was able to decrease transmission of influenza to adults who come into close contact with vaccinated children. So by requiring that more children receive this important immunization, New Jersey is likely to see a decrease in influenza-related illness not only in children, but in adults as well. And since so many people die from influenza every year, this is probably a good thing.