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Flu Vaccine Recommended for More Children

Largest-Ever Number of Americans Now Urged to Get Vaccinated
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 24, 2008 -- Government health officials on Wednesday recommended flu vaccinations for the largest number of Americans ever, urging all children between 6 months and 18 years old to be vaccinated.

The expanded recommendation adds about 30 million new people to flu vaccination recommendations. Public health officials now urge vaccinations for more than 260 million Americans, some 85% of the total population.

Officials were able to recommend the expansion because they are expecting pharmaceutical companies to produce more vaccine than usual. They expect to have up to 146 million vaccine doses on hand over the course of the coming flu season, says Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, director of the CDC.

"That is fantastic news," Gerberding said at a news conference.

Officials also urged seniors to get vaccinated against pneumoccocus, which can cause pneumonia and meningitis. Medicare fully covers both the pneumococcal and influenza vaccines.

"Free should be cheap enough," said Kerry Weems, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Spread of Influenza

Influenza causes an estimated 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations on average per year. The CDC says that adults 65 and older, pregnant women, young children, and people with chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease) are at increased risk for complications from flu, such as pneumonia.

Although most children will not experience severe complications from flu, experts said schools and day cares are a hotbed for spreading the virus.

In addition to children 6 months to 18 years old, the CDC recommends flu shots for all adults 50 and older, anyone with certain chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, people living in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities, health care workers, anyone who has daily household contact with people in those risk groups, and household contacts and caregivers of children less than 6 months old.

"For most people, the message is, get your flu shot," Gerberding said.

Vaccine shortages have plagued public health officials in past years as they've tried to boost vaccination rates. Despite ample supplies last year, only 72% of seniors over 65 years old and 35% of at-risk adults 18-49 years old were vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Ardis Hoven, MD, a member of the American Medical Association's Board of Trustees, said only four in 10 adult patients had discussed flu vaccination with their doctors.

"Half of the patients who did initiated the conversation themselves," she said.

Choosing Flu Strains

Flu vaccines take months to grow and manufacture. Each year, health officials have to make educated guesses on which flu strains to include in the vaccine based on which they believe will cause the most flu in the United States.

That biological guessing game went awry last year, when two of the three strains chosen for the vaccine did not match the dominant strains circulating in the public.

Dan Jernigan, MD, deputy director of the CDC's Influenza Division, told reporters that the three strains chosen this year match up well so far with strains circulating in South America, where the flu season is coming to a close.

"At this time, no new findings suggest there are viruses that have emerged that might be different from those in the vaccine," he said.

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