Of the 115 U.S. children known to have died of the flu between September 2010 and August 2011, half had no known medical condition that put them at high risk of succumbing to the viral disease.
The fact, however, that 33 of the children were not yet 6 months old and that 20 others were still under the age of 5 "underscores the fact that young age in itself is a risk factor" for dying from the flu, says a report released today (Sept. 15) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In releasing the numbers of young flu victims, the CDC urged vaccinations for all children older than 6 months unless they have certain conditions, such a severe egg allergy. Yearly vaccinations don't guarantee that a child will avoid the flu, but they do reduce the risk, the agency said.
More than two-thirds of those flu victims older than 6 months had not been vaccinated, the CDC reported, based on the vaccination histories it could obtain. The report said vaccination data was available from 74 of those children, and that only 17 had received shots.
The highest numbers of deaths occurred in late January and early February.
Of the 57 children with a medical condition that had put them at high risk, 31 had a neurological disorder and 17 had pulmonary disease, the report said.
These findings emphasize the need to improve vaccination coverage among all children, "especially those at increased risk for influenza-related complications," the report said.
Vaccinations of pregnant women have been shown to reduce deaths among infants younger than 6 months, the CDC said, though no data were available on whether the mothers of infants who had died last year were vaccinated during their pregnancies.
Because even vaccinated children can develop a fatal case of the flu, the agency said, it recommends that that those patients with severe illnesses be immediately treated with influenza antiviral medications if they are also suspected of having the flu. Of the 94 children who died in a hospital or emergency department, only half had been prescribed antiviral drugs, the report noted.
"We know the flu vaccine isn't 100 percent effective, especially not in children with high-risk medical conditions," said Dr. Lyn Finelli, chief of the CDC’s Surveillance and Outbreak Response Team. That's why both vaccinations and antiviral drugs are needed to combat flu deaths, she said.
"Vaccinate first, then use influenza antiviral drugs as a second line of defense against the flu. Right now we aren't fully using the medical tools at our disposal to prevent flu illnesses and deaths in children,” Finelli said.
This season's influenza vaccine protects against the same three influenza strains as last year's shot — the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus — but the CDC has said yearly vaccinations are needed because immunity wanes over time.
Of the children who died, 52 percent were white, 18 percent were black, and 15 percent were Hispanic (a category that includes both races), the report said.
The CDC noted that its report was limited because it included only reported deaths of children who had positive tests for influenza. The numbers likely underestimate the true number of deaths, the agency said. Additionally, it noted that some data about vaccinations and other medical conditions were missing.
More information for parents is available on the CDC's website.
Pass it on: Even healthy kids, especially those under age 5, are at risk of dying from the flu; vaccinations and antiviral drugs can prevent deaths.