Can the flu be deadly in otherwise healthy children?

It’s generally thought that young children and those with high-risk medical conditions are at a higher risk of flu-related complications – which can include pneumonia, encephalitis, and even death. Although it’s not common, the flu can also be fatal in healthy children with no underlying diseases or chronic conditions, found an analysis from the CDC released online today from Pediatrics.

Beginning in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandated the reporting of all pediatric deaths due to influenza virus infection.  Today, the CDC released this information for the period October 1, 2004 through September 30, 2012.  To summarize:

  • 830 children between 6 months and 17 years of age died of influenza virus infection or its complications during the study period.
  • The seasonal pediatric mortality rate from influenza varied from 0.5 to 3.8 deaths per million children.
  • The seasonal median age of pediatric deaths ranged from 3 to 8.5 years with an overall median age of 7 years.
  • Almost half of the children who died from influenza virus were previously healthy children with NO underlying diseases or chronic conditions.
  • Of those children with chronic illnesses, asthma and cerebral palsy accounted for almost a quarter of the deaths.
  • For those victims whose vaccination status was known, 80% were not vaccinated or were inadequately vaccinated.

So what does the study mean for your child?  First, the mortality rate for influenza virus infection among children is low, but not zero.  Because it is a rate, the higher the number of infected children, the greater the number of deaths in a given season.

This is straightforward arithmetic. The risk of death for any given child (most importantly your child) is not greatly affected by the state of health since almost half of the children who died were healthy at the time of infection. Children with chronic lung or neurologic conditions are at an increased risk for death.  Finally, vaccination reduces the risk of death in children from influenza virus infections.

Why do parents not get the flu vaccine for their child? The vaccination acceptance rate remains relatively low despite recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices that all children over the age of 6 months should be vaccinated for influenza. Only 52 percent of children 6 months to 17 years of age received the vaccine during the 2011-2012 influenza season. 

Among the myriad of reasons that parents give for not vaccinating their children include: the failure of the annual vaccine to provide adequate protection to infecting strains, real or imagined risks of harm by the vaccine, and the “self-limited” nature of influenza infection.

What’s the take home message from this study?  I can’t emphasize this enough. The vast majority of children who died from influenza infection were unvaccinated. VACCINATE YOUR CHILD FOR INFLUENZA!!!

For more information, I wrote a blog post back in September that addressed a variety of questions regarding childhood influenza vaccination.

Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here.

Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »