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Flu striking New Mexico’s youngest children

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

More than 120 children in New Mexico ages 4 and under have been hospitalized with influenza during the current flu season, prompting state Department of Health officials to remind residents that vaccinations are crucial to keeping households and communities healthy.

“This says to us that despite an abundance of flu vaccine for children and adults in New Mexico, too many residents are putting the health of themselves and their family at risk by not getting their annual vaccination,” said Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said. “We hope families take seriously the threat that flu can have on their health and get their flu vaccination today. It’s not too late to protect yourself and your loved ones.”

The Health Department is also concerned about the increasing number of parents who have not vaccinated their children against measles and other childhood illnesses.

A student at McCollum Elementary School is vaccinated during a flu shot clinic in the school’s library in 2016. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The rate of hospital admissions among children ages 4 and younger in New Mexico is the second-highest among 13 states participating in an influenza hospitalization tracking study conducted by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Mexico’s rate is 3.2 times greater than that of the other states. For the 2018-19 season, New Mexico’s rate is 147.2 hospitalizations per 100,000 population among ages 4 and younger, compared with the weighted average of the other 12 states of 45.2 hospitalizations per 100,000, said Dr. Michael Landen, state epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health.

That number is up from the 2017-18 flu season, when New Mexico’s rate for the age group was 1.6 times greater than the weighted average of the other states.

“The influenza vaccine is one of our most effective interventions, and people are not using it enough,” Landen said. “Adults make the decisions to get children vaccinated, so we need the adults to make better decisions to help us reduce our child influenza hospital rate.”

Unlike the latest shingles vaccine, which is in short supply nationally and has caused pharmacies to create waiting lists, there is no such shortage of influenza vaccine.

This year’s flu season has been longer than usual, Landen said. The H1N1 strain caused most of the early cases, while cases of flu reported later in the season were from the H3N2 strain. The influenza vaccine covers both strains and has an overall 47 percent efficacy rate for people of all ages, which in practical terms means “it reduces the likelihood of someone having to get medical care for influenza by 47 percent,” Landen said.

For children ages 6 months through 17 years, the efficacy rate is even better, at 61 percent, he said.

The Health Department is also encouraging parents to have their children get the MMR vaccine, a shot to protect them against measles, mumps and rubella. It’s especially important in light of a recent emergency declared in the state of Washington after a measles outbreak there.

Measles is particularly contagious. If one person has it, there is a 90 percent chance the people closest to that person who have not been immunized will contract the illness, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

“Vaccines are the best protection against measles and many other serious diseases,” Health Secretary Kunkel said. “The entire purpose of getting vaccinated is to protect you and your loved ones from disease before it makes you sick. The greater the number of New Mexico children who are fully vaccinated, the better the chance entire families – even entire communities – stay healthy.”

Although New Mexico has not had any reported measles cases, Landen said, there is concern because over the past seven years the state has had a steady increase in the number of children who are not fully vaccinated.

For children to attend school in New Mexico, they must be vaccinated, unless the parents get an exemption for medical or religious reasons, he said. Large pockets of exempted children exist in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Taos counties.

Many parents who apply for the exemption are motivated by a belief that a connection exists between childhood vaccines and autism – a persistent and unproven association, Landen said.

He pointed to a just-released, long-term MMR vaccination study in Denmark that tracked 657,461 children born from 1999 to 2010.

The study concluded that the vaccinations do not increase the risk for autism and do not trigger autism in susceptible children, and there is no association with the clustering of autism cases after vaccination.