Since 2008, the recommendation is that all US children from 6 months to 18 years of age receive annual flu vaccinations, yet rates for flu shots are much lower than for more traditional childhood vaccines for diseases like measles, polio and whooping cough.
Now, a recent national poll reveals that most American parents who do not have their children vaccinated against the flu do not rate the flu vaccine as highly as other childhood vaccines.
In January 2016, the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health asked a national sample of US parents to compare the annual flu vaccine with other recommended childhood vaccines.
Sarah J. Clark, lead author and associate director of the National Poll, and an associate research scientist in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says:
"Despite substantial public health efforts, flu vaccine rates for US children are well below national targets."
The poll finds that 59% of parents whose children did not receive flu shots this season regard the vaccine as less important than other childhood vaccines, whereas only 14% of parents whose children did receive flu shots had this view.
Overall, 35% of parents surveyed said they regarded the flu vaccine as "less important" than other childhood vaccines and 33% were of the view that it "works less well."
Also, 16% said they thought the flu vaccine "undergoes less testing" than other vaccines, while 15% of parents said they thought it leads to more side effects.
The proportion expressing these negative beliefs were higher in those parents who did not have their children vaccinated against the flu this season.
"In exploring why some parents do not have their child get the flu vaccine," notes Clark, "we found that many parents do not believe that flu vaccine is as safe, effective or important as the other vaccines their children receive."
Altogether, 1,367 parents completed the poll. Of these, 52% said their child had received the flu vaccine this season, with children aged 1-5 years being more likely to have had their shots than those between 6-17 years (60% and 49%, respectively).
Could parents be more confused about flu vaccine?
Clark suggests one reason parents might see the flu vaccine as ineffective is because it is different to other vaccines in ways that might confuse parents.
"For example, parents generally expect that vaccines will prevent their child from getting a disease," she explains. "But getting a flu shot for your child does not guarantee he or she won't get the flu, though generally, vaccinated children will have a less severe case."
This is a more complex concept to grasp than the simple message that if you get your child vaccinated against polio they will not get polio.
The idea of reduced risk rather than a guarantee of no disease may lead parents to wrongly believe the flu vaccine does not work, says Clark, who adds that the findings show many parents do not realize that flu can kill children.
Around 20,000 children under 5 have to be admitted to hospital in the US every year because of flu complications. In some cases these can result in death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The poll also reveals that parents find health care professionals talk differently about flu vaccine compared with other vaccines.
Parents whose children did not receive flu shots this season were three times more likely than parents whose children did get them to say their doctor recommends flu vaccine less strongly than other vaccines (32% and 9%, respectively).
The report concludes:
"Health care providers should take note of the disparity in parental beliefs found in this poll, and ensure that they fully explain and strongly recommend annual flu vaccine for all children."
Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned that targeted school closure may help reduce flu spread in pandemics while incurring less social cost than more traditional policies, such as nationwide school closure.