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Flu Can Kill Even Healthy Kids

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If you’re putting off getting your seasonal flu shot, new research presented last week at IDWeek 2012 in San Diego just might have you convinced that getting vaccinated against the flu should be a priority.

The study showed that flu can be fatal to healthy children without underlying conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, which would make it more likely for them to face complications from the flu. Researchers looked at flu fatalities in children under the age of 18 and found that 43% of deaths occurred in previously healthy children. Even more surprising was the fact that healthy children succumbed to the illness even faster than children with an underlying condition — the median time between initial symptoms to death in healthy children was just 4 days, compared to 7 for children with other conditions.

The research underscores the importance of getting seasonal flu shots early, as well as following good hygiene habits to prevent spread of the flu in school-age children. The researchers emphasized that school-age children are typically the people who spread the flu the most throughout a community, infecting other schoolmates as well as adults, elderly people, and infants at home.

The youngest children are the most at risk, with a third of the fatalities in children under the age of 5, and 11% of deaths in infants under 6 months, who are too young to be immunized.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that all children aged 6 months to 18 years be immunized annually against the flu.

Researchers at the IDWeek conference recommended the use of school-wide vaccination programs for the flu. In a study of almost 4,500 students in the Los Angeles area, experts compared rates of flu in schools that had a flu vaccine program and schools that did not. In schools that offered the vaccine, only about 50% of students were vaccinated, but students at those schools, whether vaccinated or not, still enjoyed lower influenza rates and fewer days of absenteeism than schools that did not offer the program. Vaccinated children were 3 times less likely to get the flu than those who did not get the vaccine, and their absentee rates were halved.

Vaccinating school-age children can help prevent influenza from spreading to adults and other children in the community, especially those most vulnerable to the flu — babies under 6 months. Pregnant women should consider getting the flu shot while pregnant to protect young babies before they are old enough to get the shot, and parents and caregivers of young children should all be immunized.

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