The majority of kids who died of the flu between 2010 and 2014 didn’t receive their yearly vaccine for influenza prior to their deaths, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics on April 3.
“The lower percentage of vaccination among those who died suggests that the vaccine prevents deaths due to flu,” Brendan Flannery, lead author of the study and epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Huffington Post.
“We could prevent more flu-related deaths by vaccinating more of our children and teenagers,” he added.
The study, which examined 358 confirmed flu deaths in kids ages 6 months to 17 years, found that of the 291 children whose vaccination status could be determined, only 26 percent had received that year’s flu vaccine. (This percentage didn’t include children who had been vaccinated less than 14 days before their deaths, because it takes about that long for the vaccine to take effect.)
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot every year, with a few rare exceptions ― for individuals who have life-threatening allergies to the vaccine’s ingredients, for example.
Approximately half of the children who died between 2010 and 2014 had at least one high-risk medical condition, such as a neurological disorder, diabetes, asthma, heart disease or an immune deficiency, which can increase susceptibility to influenza complications. And although the flu vaccine is especially important for high-risk people, only 31 percent of the high-risk children who died in that period had been vaccinated, according to the study.
“Parents of children with high-risk conditions often know that their children are at increased risk of severe illness if they get the flu,” Flannery noted. “It was surprising therefore that only one in three children with underlying risk factors for severe flu had been vaccinated.”
Among the healthy children who died of the flu, just 20 percent had received a seasonal flu vaccine.
Researchers determined the flu vaccine was 51 percent effective in high-risk children and 65 percent effective in low-risk kids.
“It reduced the chances of dying of flu by 65 percent, but it was not 100 percent,” Dr. John Treanor, a flu vaccine researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center who was not involved in the study, told NBC News.
“The vaccine is not perfect and some children in this study died from flu despite receiving [the] vaccine,” Flannery said. “However, flu vaccines are the best way to prevent against getting the flu, and this study reminds us that flu can be deadly, even in previously healthy children and adolescents.”
Among adults, influenza-related deaths ranged from a low of 12,000 seasonal flu deaths to a high of 56,000 seasonal flu deaths between 2010 and 2014, according to the CDC. (The agency uses estimates rather than exact counts for adult influenza deaths because flu deaths tend to be underreported on death certificates and not all states are required to report them. Also, some people who die from flu complications aren’t tested for the flu.)