With the flu season fast approaching, it is good to hear that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the nasal influenza vaccine, FluMist, for a larger population -- now including children between the ages of two and five years. Previously, FluMist was only approved for healthy children over five years old and for adults up to the age of forty-nine.
Despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control that all children age six months to fifty-nine months receive a flu vaccination, studies show that children under five years of age have the same rate of flu-related hospitalizations as the elderly. Due to the unacceptably low rates of children's vaccinations, these statistics are unsurprising. Young children are rarely killed by the flu virus, but often they carry it around and pass it on to the elderly (e.g., their grandparents), who are more likely to suffer fatal consequences. Older people are not as well protected by a flu vaccination because their immune systems don't react as well to the vaccine as children's. The likelihood that vaccinating schoolchildren against influenza would protect not only those vaccinated but their elderly relatives was supported by the experience in Japan from the 1970s through the 1980s. During that period, flu vaccines were mandatory for schoolchildren, and the death rate from influenza and pneumonia was significantly decreased, both among youngsters and the elderly. As soon as this law was reversed, the death rates climbed upwards.
The FluMist vaccine is a better option than the conventional vaccine because it uses live virus instead of killed virus and has an easier and less painful method of administration. Approval of the vaccine for younger children provides a needle-free option, making the process easier on both the children being vaccinated and their parents. It is important to note that the FluMist vaccine should not be given to asthmatic children, children under five who suffer from recurrent wheezing, or to anyone allergic to the FluMist components, which include eggs and egg products. There are standard flu shots available for those not able to take FluMist. We emphasize the importance of the standard vaccines for children with asthma -- a population with inexcusably low vaccination rates in light of how often asthmatic children are hospitalized and also in light of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices' (ACIP's) recommendation that all children with asthma older than six months receive a vaccination every flu season.
Krystal Wilson is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).
Also see this ACSH article on vaccinating schoolchildren to save the elderly.