Health Officials Weigh Yearly Flu Shot for Kids

Public health officials are debating whether to recommend that schoolchildren get a flu shot each year. Proponents say it would protect kids and reduce the spread of flu through communities.

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Public health experts are meeting in Atlanta to decide whether all school children should get a flu vaccine every year. It's an attempt to reduce disease in children and possibly protect adults. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine for all children between six months and five years.

NPR's Richard Knox has this report.

RICHARD KNOX: For years, researchers have noticed that flu epidemics generally start among school children.

Dr. PAUL GLEZEN (Baylor College of Medicine): In the early part of any epidemic, 58 percent of the patients presenting to clinics were school age children.

KNOX: That's Paul Glezen of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. He says as the flu epidemic progresses it spreads from school kids in both directions, to preschool children and infants and to young adults and elders.

Dr. GLEZEN: We saw that hospitalizations and deaths occurred really in the second half of the epidemic. So there has to be spread through the community, and it's obvious that groupings of susceptible children in schools is a very good opportunity for the spread of the flu.

KNOX: So one strategy to stop the spread of flu in a community might be to vaccinate school-age children. Glezen and his colleagues have been doing just that in Temple and Belton, Texas. For nearly ten years they've compared the spread of flu there with two other Texas towns where school kids weren't vaccinated.

Dr. GLEZEN: And what we find is that when we offer vaccine to the school children we significantly reduce the rates of visits for all age groups in the community.

KNOX: That is, doctor visits by people with flu symptoms.

For many flu experts that's a strong argument to vaccinate all but the very youngest children to protect the entire community. But if the expert panel meeting today recommends that everyone from ages five to eighteen gets vaccinated, it'll be to protect the children themselves, says the CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat.

Dr. ANNE SCHUCHAT (Centers for Disease Control): Keeping children healthy, keeping them in school where they can learn and thrive. I think they're looking at it that way, rather than at the total population pack.

KNOX: There may be benefits for a vaccinated kids' immediate families, Schuchat says. Others in the family may be less likely to get the flu and parents won't need to miss work as much to care for sick children.

But even though many flu experts think there may be a broader community effect from vaccinating those children, the CDC doesn't think that case is clinched.

Some people point to other benefits, especially if children get the nasal spray vaccine. Because it contains a live though disabled flu virus, Paul Glezen says the nasal spray vaccine might protect more broadly than the killed virus vaccine given by injection.

Dr. GLEZEN: I think that's an important attribute of the life vaccine, because it gives better protection against vaccine mismatch than does the shot.

KNOX: That can be important in flu seasons like this one, when it turns out that two of the three viruses in the kill virus vaccine are mismatches. They don't match the viruses actually circulating across the country. That doesn't make the injected vaccine worthless, but it is less effective.

The CDC estimates that as many as seven million more children might get vaccinated next year if it's recommended for all school children. Supplies shouldn't be a problem. By one estimate there will be 30 million unused doses at the end of this flu season.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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