Flu shots urged for young kids
By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
It's flu season, and Dr. David Berman is ready to go to war. During his years as a pediatric infectious disease specialist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, he has seen some of the youngest victims of the flu hospitalized for weeks.
"I had a child here last year," Berman recalled Monday, "and the flu just ripped through the whole family. Everybody got sick, and the child ended up in the hospital on the ventilator."
The toddler survived, but Berman said the risk of infection would have been much lower if the child had gotten a flu shot.
For the first time this fall, the federal Centers for Disease Control is encouraging flu shots for children 6 months to 23 months old. National statistics show the flu sends babies and toddlers to the hospital as often as it does the elderly.
The center is not recommending the general population get vaccinated, citing recent vaccine shortages that surely would worsen in such a case.
"The age group 6 to 23 months is a group that has an increased risk for contracting the flu," Berman said. "Those high risk groups, those are the people that are also at risk for spreading the disease."
Children younger than 9 will have to get two shots instead of one.
Berman said parents should take their children to the doctor for immunizations in October, typically the month infections start to show up. The second shot should be taken by December, the peak of the flu season.
Bill Parizek of the Florida Department of Health said the department has notified the state's county health officials of the CDC's advisory.
He said immunizations would be available for free to children on Medicaid under the state's Vaccine for Children Program starting in October.
The state Health Department has not made a formal recommendation on flu shots for infants and toddlers.
Jennifer Takagishi, a pediatrician at the University of South Florida's Department of Pediatrics office on Davis Islands, said she and her colleagues especially push the shots for "high-risk" children, such as those with asthma or heart disease.
She said the shots likely will become more common for children as doctors across the country, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support the idea.
That's important, Takagishi said, because fewer kids with the flu means fewer adults with the flu.
"(Children) are the major carriers for the influenza virus," she said. "They are the ones spreading it to their families and others. If you decrease the risk to them, you decrease the risk to others, too."
Berman and Dr. Wenying Zhao, a pediatrician at St. Petersburg Pediatrics, say young children who suffer from asthma or HIV infection or who take immunosuppressants are especially at risk of getting the flu.
Zhao said she sees dozens of tots each year who have flu-like symptoms. She tells parents to make sure their children are immunized.
"We do have some difficulties because a lot of people have the misconception that the vaccine can cause the flu," Zhao said, "but it won't. It may cause soreness near the vaccine entryway, but that's all."
-- Times staff writer Brady Dennis contributed to this report.
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