April 3, 2017 3:05 pm
Updated: April 3, 2017 9:33 pm

Vast majority of kids who died from flu weren’t vaccinated: study

Two-year-old Jude was healthy and died suddenly of the flu. Now his parents are speaking out about the importance of flu vaccine. As Allison Vuchnich reports, new research shows children who are not vaccinated are at higher risk.

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Health officials urge parents to make sure their kids get the flu shot, but scientists may be giving you another solemn reason why: vaccinated kids are much less likely to get severely sick or even die from the flu.

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Keep in mind, you may still end up with the flu even if you’ve been vaccinated. Some years, there’s a mismatch in the strain, influenza can “drift” or mutate as it spreads, or you may get infected before the vaccine kicks in. But the medical community says across the board, getting vaccinated lowers your risk of getting sick and encountering severe symptoms of influenza.

Still, of nearly 300 children who died from the flu in the U.S., 74 per cent weren’t vaccinated, a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report is warning.

READ MORE: What Canadians should expect from the 2016-17 flu season

“The main finding is that the flu vaccine reduced the risk of death in children six months of age to 17 years. We looked at deaths over four seasons and we saw a pretty consistent effect of vaccines preventing death,” Brendan Flannery, a CDC epidemiologist and the study’s lead author, told Global News.

“By reducing the risk of death, we think the vaccine saves lives and that’s very important,” he said.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings.

She told Global News that only 22 per cent of people 19 and under get the flu shot, according to recent numbers. She conceded that it’s a “low number” and that influenza has the potential to become “very serious, particularly in very young and very old” populations.

Complications from pneumonia to encephalitis – inflammation in the brain – could crop up.

READ MORE: What happens to your body when you get the flu, step by step

For his research, Flannery looked at flu deaths in 291 kids older than six months and under 18 between 2010 and 2014. Turns out, 35 per cent were vaccinated while the majority never got the flu shot that might’ve prevented their illness.

What’s more troubling is that 151 kids had high-risk conditions, from asthma to other chronic conditions, which made them vulnerable to complications. About one-third of this group got the flu shot.

This was a finding that surprised and worried Flannery, he told Global News.

“We know that flu is much more severe in kids with underlying health conditions,” he said.

READ MORE: Signs you’re too sick with the flu and should stay home

In Canada, deaths from influenza are rare. In 2015-16, there were 13 pediatric deaths (that includes infants to 18 years old), while in 2014-15, there were seven deaths.

In 2013-14, there were 12 pediatric deaths, according to numbers provided to Global News from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

PHAC told Global News that 90 per cent of hospitalizations and other severe flu outcomes occur among children who did not receive the flu vaccine.

Flannery also noted that infants under six months old weren’t included in the study. That’s because they’re too young to be immunized against the flu.

READ MORE: 7 steps to surviving the cold and flu season without getting sick

He didn’t count how many infant deaths could be tied to influenza. But he noted that pregnant woman, older siblings and family members have a key role to play in keeping babies safe by getting vaccinated themselves.

Tam said Canadians tend to think of the flu as a “trivial” ailment. Dr. Allison McGeer, medical director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital, agrees.

“We all tend to think of flu as something that makes you feel sick for a few days and then you get better. And because it’s so common we have a tendency not to take it seriously,” McGeer told Global News.

McGeer said the CDC findings affect Canadians too.

“It’s immediately relevant to us. There’s really not a significant difference between an American child and a Canadian child,” she said.

READ MORE: Here’s what works and what doesn’t when you’re fighting a cough and cold

Doctors advise Canadians to get their flu shots to help protect themselves and the people around them from catching influenza.

Vaccination rates nationally sit at a meagre 20 to 25 per cent while health-care workers report higher numbers at about 40 per cent.

If at least 75 per cent of the public were to be immunized, “herd immunity” would occur. That means if most people were vaccinated, the odds of an unvaccinated person getting sick would be very low.

It’s also recommended for populations at risk of complications. These people who are more vulnerable include pregnant women, children under five, seniors and residents in long-term care or nursing homes.

Those with underlying health problems, such as chronic diseases (asthma, chronic bronchitis, cancer) should also make their way to a flu vaccination clinic.

Read the full CDC report.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

With files from Allison Vuchnich and Veronica Tang

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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