A panel of experts that advises the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all American children over 6 months be vaccinated against seasonal flu, starting as soon as possible but perhaps more feasibly in the 2008-09 flu season because most doctors will have ordered all their flu shots for the current season.

The CDC does not have to follow the recommendation of its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices but it usually does. The panel met yesterday, Wednesday 27th February, in Atlanta, Georgia, and voted unanimously in favour of the recommendation.

The current CDC recommendation is for vaccination of children between 6 months and 5 years old. This new recommendation, if adopted, will extend to all children between the age of 6 months and 18 years old.

This move adds about 30 million children to the flu vaccination list across the country, said CDC Curtis Allen to the press. Although there are nearly 60 million children aged 5 to 18 in the US, a lot of them are already covered under current recommendations, he said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

The CDC predicts the actual number that will get the vaccination will be around 7 million, based on current take up rates.

Between 5 and 20 per cent of the US population get the flu every year, and the disease kills about 36,000 people across the country every year, most of them elderly, but some healthy children too.

The 26 US states monitored by the CDC lost 68 children to the flu last year, half of whom were school age. 22 children have died so far this year, said the Los Angeles Times.

More than two thirds of Americans should have the flu shot every year, but most of them don’t know this, said the CDC. This new recommendation makes it clear that all children should be vaccinated, said the panel.

According to a Bloomberg news report, pediatrics professor at Oklahoma State University, Stanley Grogg, told the panel just before it voted that the previous situation was too complicated, resulting in too many vulnerable unvaccinated children. It is much easier to remember a blanket recommendation for all children up to the age of 18, “than jumps along the way”, he said.

It will not be mandatory for every child to have the flu shot, which is also available as a nasal spray, but the CDC’s declaration will make it more likely that doctors will store and offer the vaccine.

Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Dr Anne Schuchat, told the media:

“This new recommendation will help parents understand that all children can benefit from vaccination.”

CDC approval means flu vaccinations will most likely be covered by insurance. The government insurance scheme for children, for example, covers about 45 per cent of American children, said the Los Angeles Times.

The CDC referred to a study on flu vaccination among children aged from 6 to 23 months that showed full vaccination (two shots) reduced hospital stays due to flu by around 75 per cent between 2005 to 2007, and partial vaccination (one shot) had a similar result.

Gary Stein of Families Fighting Flu, who lost his 4 year old daughter, Jessica, to the flu in 2002, spoke at the advisory meeting. He said afterwards they were “very pleased” with the panel’s decision. He told Reuters that:

“Doctors follow these recommendations in advising their patients.”

“Parents read it, and vaccination rates are so low that this awareness strongly follows the guidance,” he added.

Health officials are hoping the new recommendation, if adopted, will also help to restore public confidence in flu vaccination. The flu shots this year have not been as good a match as usual to the types of flu viruses that are circulating. Out of the last 19 years, this has happened 3 times.

Click here for more information about seasonal flu (CDC).

Sources: Associated Press, Bloomberg, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, CDC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD