Richard Kanowitz told me a story that is every parent's nightmare: He and his wife put their 4-year-old daughter, Amanda, to bed sick one night, and "in the morning, she was gone." Amanda had died of influenza B, the plain old seasonal flu.
The Kanowitzes had called their pediatrician that evening because Amanda was pale and sluggish. The doctor told them that if they kept Amanda hydrated she'd be OK. In almost every case, that would have been true. But children do die of the flu; 83 children died last year, and 92 percent of them had not been vaccinated. Most of them had been healthy, like Amanda.
Doctors don't know why the flu occasionally turns vicious. One theory is that the immune system in healthy people can overreact when faced with a new virus, and that immune system reaction is what proves fatal. It's the theory for why the majority of the people who died in the 1918 flu epidemic were young.
Ever since Amanda died on March 1, 2004, the Kanowitzes have made it their crusade to ensure that every eligible child gets a flu shot. They lobbied the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend flu shots for all children, which the feds did for the first time this year. "Our long-term goal is to convince parents to take flu seriously and get their children vaccinated," says Kanowitz.
Kanowitz's Families Fighting Flu group has launched a "say boo to the flu!" campaign, which is offering to vaccinate the whole family at events in cities around the country before Halloween. After that, there's the Parent Teacher Association's "Let's Fight Flu Together!" program, in which local PTAs can schedule a shot clinic at school, with parents paying $30 per vaccination. (Some health plans cover the cost of flu shots, but not all.) Kanowitz, a lawyer in New York City, is unapologetic about the fact that vaccine maker Novartis is helping fund the PTA clinics. "Until they create a vaccine to stop me from asking" for money to promote childhood flu vaccinations, "I'll ask," he says.
I ended my conversation feeling like a jerk for thinking that my healthy 5-year-old could get by without a flu shot this season. Indeed, according to the CDC, the median age of children who died of the flu last year was 5. Time to call the pediatrician or scoot by the local pharmacy, methinks.
Parents concerned about the preservative thimerosal in vaccines can ask their pediatrician to order thimerosal-free vaccine or use FluMist nasal spray vaccine, which doesn't contain the preservative. The CDC's quite specific recommendations explain which thimerosal-free vaccines are appropriate for children at different ages.
Other flu news: Vaccinating new mothers and immediate family members before a newborn leaves the hospital helps protect babies younger than 6 months. Those infants are too young to get flu shots, but they have the highest rates of hospitalization for flu—right up there with 80-year-olds. In a study reported at the meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America yesterday, researchers at Duke University found that 45 percent of new mothers who hadn't had a flu shot chose to be vaccinated as a result of the experiment, which was held at Durham Regional Hospital between October 2007 and February 2008. No word on whether the shots actually lowered the infection rate among the babies, but other studies have shown a protective value—and that "herd immunity" is the big reason CDC wants kids to get their shots now, too.