Q: Is it too late to get my daughter a flu shot? Is it even effective?
A: It is definitely not too late. The flu season typically runs from October through May and our state has already experienced widespread flu activity. In fact, we may be starting to experience a second peak in flu activity now. According to the New Mexico Department of Health website, 28 flu-related deaths, and 100 pneumonia-related deaths have been reported so far in our state during this flu season. These numbers are higher than last year’s and we are months away from the end of flu season.
While no flu vaccine is 100 percent effective at preventing one from getting the flu, there is still value in receiving your flu shot. Many families have voiced concern over the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine due to the reported efficacy of only 10% in Australia. It is important to understand what this really means.
The “10 percent effectiveness” reported in Australia is referring ONLY to the effectiveness of the vaccine preventing infection with the H3N2 type of influenza A virus, which is only one strain of three or four that are included in the vaccine. This does not include the effectiveness at preventing the other types of flu, nor does it begin to touch on how well the vaccine might lessen the severity of symptoms if the vaccinated individual gets the flu.
The most compelling evidence to support immunizing your child against the flu comes from a study published in the April 2017 journal Pediatrics, which showed a significant decrease in a child’s risk of dying from influenza if they were vaccinated. The flu vaccine decreased the risk of flu-associated death in healthy children by 65 percent, and by 51 percent in those children with high-risk medical conditions. So far, 63 children have died in the U.S. from influenza for the 2017-18 flu season.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends every child aged six months and older receive the flu vaccine annually. This is particularly important for kids with chronic medical problems, such as asthma, diabetes, weakened immune systems and heart disease, among others. It is important to get a flu shot every year because the formulation of the vaccine may change to match the predicted circulating strains and one’s immune response may decline over time. The most common side effects of the flu vaccine are mild and characterized by a localized reaction consisting of pain, swelling and a bump under the skin. It is physically impossible to get the flu from the vaccine as there is no virus in the vaccine.
There are differences in symptoms that can help differentiate between the flu and a cold. The flu is characterized by sudden onset of symptoms, including fever, body aches, chills, fatigue, headache, cough, runny and stuffy nose, headache, sore throat and upset stomach. A cold is characterized by runny and stuffy nose, sore throat, sneezing, cough, occasionally fever and a more gradual onset of symptoms. While there are antiviral medications licensed to treat influenza, it is generally not necessary unless a child has a chronic medical condition or is younger than two. The medication does not provide much benefit unless it is started between 48-72 hours from the onset of the illness. Additionally, the medication’s more common side effects are nausea and abdominal pain, and neurologic symptoms. Supportive care, including the use of nasal saline, steam, a humidifier, pushing fluids, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for comfort, and honey for cough in kids 12 months and older, may provide some relief. Over-the-counter medications may be used once kids are six years old. Most colds and flu can be treated at home; however, it is important to know warning signs of a more serious infection and when to seek evaluation. The following are concerning signs that should be evaluated: having difficulty breathing or a severe cough, not drinking and having decreased urination, seeming “out of it” or confused and not improving after a week.
The very best plan when it comes to the flu is to avoid getting it all together. Prevention strategies are frequent hand washing, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and, of course, getting your flu shot. There is still plenty of flu vaccine available in New Mexico, so contact your child’s health care provider. Many pharmacies also offer flu vaccine to kids. Two websites that can help you find other locations providing flu vaccine are: https://nmhealth.org/location/public/ or http://vaccine.healthmap.org/.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org