Back-to-school time is barely over, and here comes the newest task for fall—flu shots for all.
For the first time, the federal government is recommending that all children ages 6 months to 18 years get seasonal influenza immunizations. That means an additional 30 million children should be dragged into the pediatrician's office for a shot, starting this month. Kids who have never had a flu shot before should get two shots, spaced at least a month apart.
Pediatricians are getting geared up for the onslaught; I got a letter from my pediatrician over the weekend telling me and other parents we need to schedule shots in advance and that if we don't show up, we'll have to pay a $25 penalty. I instantly felt fluish; my stomach had that "oh no, not one more thing to tack onto my already too-long to-do list" feeling. Isn't it enough to sell gift wrap for the PTA fundraiser??
I'm really not trying to make light of our children's health. But clearly, not every child in America is going to be brought in for a flu shot this fall. And do children really need it? To get the lowdown, I talked to Carol J. Baker, an über-expert on kids and flu. She's a member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which approved the new national flu guidelines in February, and a pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital. "It's a pain," Baker agreed. And not just for parents. "Pediatricians are saying there is no way we can do all these children. It ain't gonna work." But Baker also makes a strong case that getting children vaccinated against flu is a key step in protecting the health of all. Here's my take on what parents really need to know in order to make an informed decision about flu shots this fall:
- Flu shots are still especially important to protect children ages 6 months through 4 years. That's because those kids are most likely to have dangerous complications if they get the flu; each year, about 20,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized owing to influenza complications. Severe complications are most common in children under age 2.
- All children with chronic health problems, such as asthma or diabetes, should get a flu shot, and their family members and caregivers should, too.
- School-age kids are now expected to get flu shots not just because they can get really sick and occasionally die of flu but because they are really good at spreading the virus to relatives who are older or immune compromised and much more likely to die. Baker says: "Children shed more virus, they're more effective spreaders, and they also spread it for a longer period of time, the little beasts."
- Parents of children over ages 7 or 8 can consider getting their flu shots (or FluMist nasal spray) at the neighborhood pharmacy or grocery store, or at the school health clinic. "If I had kids in the house, I would probably get them immunized at my local pharmacy," Baker says. "I certainly wouldn't feel the need to go to the pediatrician's office."
Pediatricians are usually adamant about children having a "medical home," a doctor who knows them and their family and can give comprehensive care. But in this case, faced with 30 million kids in need of shots, they're saying this is one childhood health chore that parents can have done elsewhere without compromising their kids' care.
I might not be quite ready to make the leap to pediatric care à la Safeway, but I'm glad to know that choice is there. Flu shots with that broccoli? Why not?