The COVID-19 pandemic was an eye-opening experience for the medical community and the world. We are still recovering from the effects of this global phenomenon; however, we want to emphasize the effects this event had on our vaccination rates. During the pre-pandemic 2019-2020 flu season, an average of 57.4% of children under 17 in Texas received the flu vaccine. This proportion decreased to 45.3% during the 2021-2022 postpandemic flu season. Many parents wonder if they should give their children the flu vaccine. As physicians at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, our unequivocal answer is yes!
Influenza (aka “flu”) is a viral respiratory illness characterized by high fever, cough, runny nose, difficulty breathing and body aches. In addition, symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are common in children. Severe complications from influenza include secondary bacterial infections of the lung, sinus or ear; respiratory failure; inflammation of the heart, brain or muscles; and organ failure, all of which can be life-threatening. Influenza can also worsen pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma and heart failure.
As physicians, we take great pride and privilege in caring for children in our home state of Texas, but we would prefer that they not be in the hospital at all. Children with influenza require admission into the hospital if they can no longer take liquids by mouth, require oxygen support due to breathing difficulties or develop severe secondary infections requiring IV antibiotics. Children who are hospitalized from influenza tend to have hospital stays characterized by extremely high fevers, severe dehydration due to concurrent vomiting and diarrhea, and even potential transfer to the intensive care unit due to increasing requirements of respiratory support.
We see misinformation affecting parents’ decisions on getting the flu vaccine. One common misconception is that the flu is not that severe. This results from a confusion between actual flu infection and infection by one of the many viruses that cause a common cold. Although the flu and a cold are similar in that they are respiratory illnesses and share similar features, symptoms are typically more gradual and less severe in a cold compared to an influenza infection. Similarly, the “stomach flu” is not the same as influenza. Stomach flu generally refers to gastroenteritis (vomiting and diarrhea) caused by different categories of viruses.
Research from the Southern Hemisphere, which sees its flu season during our summer, shows that this year’s flu vaccine was very effective at preventing severe flu symptoms. Multiple studies have shown that the flu vaccine is safe.
In prioritizing flu vaccination, parents are taking decisive action to protect their children’s health, allowing them to thrive at school and in other daily activities. We should all give children every chance of not ending up in our emergency rooms with severe disease.
By Drs. Metin Goktepe, medical resident, pediatrics and Lindy U. McGee, assistant professor, pediatrics – academic general