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The New Vaccine for Babies: Influenza Vaccine
New vaccines are constantly being developed to help protect our children from diseases. One of the newer vaccines for young children is the influenza (flu) vaccine. The flu vaccine has, in fact, been used successfully for many years but recently health authorities began encouraging it for all babies from 6-23 months. This new recommendation resulted from studies showing that babies who received the flu vaccine were significantly less likely to develop the flu, ear infections, and pneumonia.

Do young children get the flu?
We often hear about the danger of the flu in the elderly, but children under age 5 have the second highest rate of serious illness and hospitalization for influenza. Each year 10–40% of children catch influenza and 1% need to be hospitalized. In older children and adults, influenza commonly causes fever, headache, body aches, runny nose, sore throat, and cough. In young children, influenza can also cause ear infection, sinus infection, croup, pneumonia, stomachache, vomiting, and diarrhea. Young children, the elderly, and people of all ages with chronic medical conditions are at greatest risk for becoming seriously ill with the flu.

How is the flu spread?
Influenza is a virus that is spread from person to person through the respiratory tract—the nose, throat and lungs. It is spread through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air, sharing food and drinks, kissing on the mouth, and passing germs on your hands. People with the flu are usually contagious from the day before the symptoms start until a week later. After being exposed to the flu, symptoms typically develop in 1-4 days.

How can I protect my children from the flu?
Be sure to follow basic hygiene measures to protect your children from the flu as well as other contagious illnesses:
  • If someone is sick with the flu or another contagious illness, ask them not to visit your baby. Remind them that your baby’s immune system is not fully developed and she’s more vulnerable to illnesses.
  • Cover your mouth with your arm when you cough or sneeze. If you cover your mouth with your hand, germs get onto your hands. And if you don’t wash your hands right away, you spread germs to everything and everyone you touch.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Be sure to wash your hands after going to the bathroom and changing diapers, after wiping noses, and before preparing food and bottles.
  • Don’t smoke and don’t let other people smoke around your children, inside your home, or inside the car. Children exposed to smoke are at greater risk for respiratory illnesses such as colds and flu, ear infections, and asthma.
  • Don’t kiss your children on the mouth—kiss them on the forehead or cheek instead.
  • Don’t share food and drinks, give your baby food from your mouth, or put the baby’s pacifier in your mouth.
  • Don’t keep your children cooped up indoors all winter. Cold, fresh air does not cause colds and flu—it actually helps prevent them by blowing away the germs in the air. Ensure good ventilation indoors and take your children outdoors every day, if possible.
Ask your children’s doctor about the influenza vaccine. Since the flu usually strikes from December to March each year, children and adults should get their flu vaccines from late September through November. The new guidelines encourage flu vaccine for:
  • Healthy infants from 6 to 23 months of age
Flu vaccine is also recommended for:
  • Children over 6 months and adults who have chronic medical conditions (e.g., lung disease including asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, sickle cell disease, and immune problems.)
  • Pregnant women who will be in the second or third trimester of pregnancy during the flu season.
  • Adults over 65 years of age
  • Family members and caregivers of infants, people with chronic medical conditions, and the elderly
The standard influenza vaccine is given by injection. The flu vaccine is considered 70–90% effective in preventing the flu. The first time young children receive the flu vaccine, they usually need two doses one month apart for immunity. Afterwards, only one dose of flu vaccine is needed each fall. A flu shot is needed every year because different types of flu arise each year and the vaccine is specifically designed to protect against the year’s flu strains. For the future, a new “intranasal” influenza vaccine is being developed. Instead of an injection, this new vaccine is squirted into the nose. The studies so far have shown that this vaccine is safe and effective.

You can’t catch the flu from the current flu vaccine—it is made from inactivated flu viruses that cannot cause illness with the flu. But there many other respiratory viruses that circulate during the flu season, and you and your children can still get sick from those. Remember to take all the precautions to help keep your children and your entire family healthy this winter.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician