It’s something of a ritual. The kids go back to school after the summer break, and a few weeks later winter coughs and colds start doing the rounds. As does influenza. We can’t protect our children against everything, but we can do our bit when it comes to this. Availability and cost will vary according to country, state or even town, but if your child is offered the flu vaccine, you should let them have it. Here’s why.
Flu is a serious illness
Proper influenza isn’t just a bad cold. It’s a potentially fatal illness that takes people’s lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the 2017-2018 flu season was a record-breaker – and not in a good way.
More than 900,000 people were hospitalised in the US due to influenza, with nearly 80,000 deaths. Of those, at least 180 were children. Flu caused almost twice as many deaths in 2017-18 as motor vehicle accidents. If there’s a way to minimise the risk of your family succumbing, why wouldn’t you take it?
Kids are in the ‘at risk’ group
Flu doesn’t discriminate, but children – along with the elderly and those with specific other medical problems – are more likely to catch the illness and suffer complications. Specifically, those aged under two years old are at greater risk as their immune systems haven’t yet developed fully.
Young children are also less able to explain just how bad a symptom is or how ill they feel. You might think they’re ‘just a bit off-colour’. As a result, kids will often suffer from a higher fever that leads to seizures or convulsions. They’re also at higher risk of dehydration through vomiting and diarrhoea.
The flu virus changes constantly
The virus is different each year. Maybe your child didn’t get sick last year – but that doesn’t mean he or she won’t this winter. Scientists work to identify which strains of the virus are most likely to spread each year, developing a new vaccine at least six months before the flu season begins.
It’s true the vaccine isn’t 100% effective – figures put it at around 60%. So yes, your child might still catch a particular strain of the virus that’s not covered. But their illness will be less severe than if they hadn’t been vaccinated. Studies have also shown the chance of them ending up in intensive care or dying as a result of flu is also significantly reduced.
Healthy kids can infect others with the virus
Your child might be fit and healthy. Maybe they get flu and shrug it off with minimum illness. Great. The problem is, the virus hangs around. Your kid might be around others who are at risk – a newborn who isn’t old enough to be vaccinated or someone with chronic asthma. People who are more likely to suffer severe and long-term complications.
Even if you feel your child is healthy enough not to need the vaccine, choosing for them not to have it is increasing the chances of spreading the illness and putting the health of others at risk.
As with many vaccines, stories about adverse reactions and dangers abound. And it’s true that, in 2010, childhood vaccination against flu was temporarily suspended in Australia. However, this was shown to be due to a single brand of vaccine that was withdrawn from use. All flu vaccines given to children now have extensive clinical trial data to validate their safety. There are also continuous tracking programmes to monitor safety and side-effects, such as the AusVaxSafety programme.
Fears that thimerosal – a preservative used to prevent contamination in vaccines – is linked to autism are unfounded; there is no evidence to show this is true. Thimerosal isn’t used in vaccinations routinely given to children, and although it’s found in some flu vaccine formulations, preservative-free versions are available. So, if you are worried, ask for one of those instead.
The vaccine won’t give your child full-blown influenza, either. The most common side-effects among children are limited to a mild fever, a rash, and a sore arm.
It will protect your baby
Babies are especially vulnerable. It’s not recommended they have the flu vaccine before the age of six months, but their immune systems aren’t equipped to cope with fighting the virus. Choosing to have the vaccine during your pregnancy means you will pass the antibodies on to your unborn child – giving them protection that will last for several months after they arrive. The vaccine is the defence against influenza for both you and your baby.
Kids aren’t just small adults
For most otherwise fit and healthy adults, the flu makes us feel terrible but doesn’t have a long-term effect. A few days in bed and off work, a bit of extra care and we’re fine. Our bodies fight off the infection, and we understand we need to look after ourselves to get back to full strength.
Young children don’t have the same physical ability as we do to battle the virus. Nor do they have the same awareness when it comes to looking after themselves – such as staying tucked up under the covers or making sure they drink enough fluids.
Choosing not to vaccinate your child puts them at risk, as well as increasing the chances of spreading the virus around friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues.
What should I do?
Flu season typically lasts from October to May. Both the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend children over the age of six months should be vaccinated, so talk to your medical professional to find out how to arrange this.
Ideally, the vaccine should be given by the end of October – before the start of flu season – but better to have it late than not at all. Vaccination is generally available for as long as viruses are going round and supplies are available.
In the meantime, be vigilant for early signs of the virus. These include a sudden fever, headaches, body aches, and severe fatigue. It’s likely there’ll also be a cough and sore throat, and irritated nasal passages.
The upshot is this. The flu vaccine is the best way of protecting your child and those around you from the virus. Discuss any fears with your doctor, but if it’s offered to you and your family, take it. You’ll be doing yourselves, and your community a favour and could even save someone else’s life.