CDC Panel Urges Extending Flu Vaccine Coverage for Kids

WEDNESDAY Feb. 27, 2008 -- U.S. health advisers recommended Wednesday that all children 6 months to 18 years of age receive annual flu shots.

Currently, the recommendation is that children 6 months to 5 years of age get vaccinated.

The recommendation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices would cover an additional 30 million children, making it one of the largest expansions of flu vaccination coverage in U.S. history.

The committee is recommending that the new guidelines take effect no later than the 2009-10 flu season, noting that many doctors have already ordered their vaccine for the 2008-09 season. The panel's recommendations are typically followed by the CDC, which issues vaccination guidelines to doctors and hospitals.

"Each season, many children remain vulnerable to the consequences of not being vaccinated against influenza," U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard H. Carmona said in a prepared statement. "We hope this expanded vaccination recommendation will strongly encourage Americans to get an annual influenza vaccination as soon as vaccine becomes available in their communities. This will help in reducing the number of childhood hospitalizations and deaths from influenza each season."

The flu kills dozens of U.S. children annually, part of the estimated 36,000 Americans who die each year from the disease. So far this season, there have been more than 10 reported deaths of children. During the 2006-07 flu season, 68 children died.

Children tend to come down with the flu at higher rates than adults but usually don't get as sick. Health officials hope that extending vaccine coverage will also benefit adults, making them less likely to be infected by children.

"Influenza is a serious, deadly illness that needs to have a vaccination each and every year," said Richard Kanowitz, president of Families Fighting Flu, who lost a 4-year-old daughter to influenza in 2004.

Kanowitz's group was one of those supporting expanding the age range for flu vaccination.

In 2006, the CDC expanded the recommendation to include children up to 5 years old.

"We want the recommendation expanded, because we hear even to this day people say, 'The recommendation doesn't apply to me. I don't have to get vaccinated.' It's completely the opposite," Kanowitz said. "You need to get vaccinated. The CDC just puts out a recommendation, and the confusion over whether people need to get vaccinated needs to be dispelled by having a clear message -- everyone should get vaccinated. The more people who get vaccinated, the more lives get saved."

This year's flu season has hit many areas of the country hard. Adding to the severity of the flu outbreak, this year's vaccine is not well matched to the current strains of flu most prevalent in the United States.

The virus strain most common in the United States right now is the influenza A H3N2 strain, and it's a strain not included in this year's vaccine. Also, this year's vaccine is not well-matched against influenza type B.

Complicating matters, some of this year's influenza type A virus is showing resistance to the antiviral drug Tamiflu. Overall, 8.1 percent of the influenza type A viruses tested by the CDC were resistant to Tamiflu. In past years, less than 1 percent of the viruses have been resistant to the drug.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration selected the influenza strains that will make up the 2008-09 flu vaccine. Following the lead of the World Health Organization, the FDA is including the new flu strains Brisbane/10, a version of the H3N2 flu; a second new Type A strain known as H1N1/Brisbane/59; and a newer Type B/Florida strain.

But according to one expert, even the best planning may not result in a perfect vaccine.

"You have to make a decision about what will be in the vaccine in advance," said Dr. John Treanor, a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. "It takes six to eight months to make the vaccine after you've chosen the strains.

"But the reality is that new strains emerge after that decision is made. So, you could be wrong," Treanor said.

More information

For more on flu vaccine, visit the CDC.

Posted: February 2008


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