It is beyond saddening to report that our nation reached a new record that no one wanted to see: The number of children who died of the flu this past season reached 172, the highest number ever recorded, excluding pandemics. That number was one ahead of the 171 children who died during the 2012-13 flu season.
The numbers were included in a June 8 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What makes this even more tragic is that 80 percent of the children who died had not been vaccinated. Only about half of Americans generally get their flu vaccines, and parents might have been even less likely to do it this past year because they’d heard the vaccine had extremely low effectiveness in Australia, where the flu season begins six months before ours.
As it turns out, effectiveness was higher in the United States, especially among young children. For them, the vaccine was 59 percent effective, which means it prevented six of every 10 vaccinated children who were exposed to the disease from getting it.
“While flu vaccination is recommended for everyone 6 months and older,” the CDC report says, “certain people are known to be more vulnerable to serious flu-related complications, including children younger than 5 years (and especially those younger than 2 years) and children of any age with certain long-term health problems, such as asthma or other lung disorders, heart disease, or a neurologic or neurodevelopmental disorder.”
Half of the children who died had a underlying health condition. But the CDC report makes it clear that the flu is dangerous to all children. Half of those who died were perfectly healthy before they caught the flu.
In other words, it’s reasonable to think that at least some of these deaths could have been prevented. In fact, a CDC study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2017 found that vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated deaths by half among children with underlying health conditions and by almost two-thirds among healthy children.
The number of pediatric deaths could grow even more because of time lags in reporting, the CDC said.
The numbers don’t take into account all the cases of flu that might have been prevented if most Americans were vaccinated. It’s extremely important for vaccination rates to be very high when the vaccine has lower effectiveness rates, to keep it from circulating as much. The less we exposed to the flu, the less likely we are to catch it – and to pass it on to others.
With luck, the next flu season won’t be as severe as this one was. Either way, we have the option as individuals and as a nation of protecting ourselves and others by getting the flu vaccine each year. Community immunity means neighbors and colleagues working together for the health of all of us.
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