1 in 3 American parents do not plan to vaccinate their children against flu amid Covid-19 concerns, says study
The most common reasons include concerns about side effects or beliefs that a vaccine is not effective or necessary
As flu season approaches, health experts are warning that the addition of another respiratory illness amid the Covid-19 pandemic could overburden the healthcare system, strain testing capacity and increase the risk of catching both diseases at once. Unlike Covid-19, however, there is a safe and effective influenza vaccine and this year, getting a flu shot is more important than ever, they emphasize.
However, the pandemic does not seem to be changing parents' mindset about the importance of the flu vaccine as 1 in 3 parents in the US plan to skip the flu shots for their children this year, according to a national poll.
Only a third of parents believe that it is more important for children to get vaccinated against the flu this year, reveals the CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine. "We may see a peak in flu and Covid-19 at the same time, which could overwhelm the healthcare system and potentially reduce our ability to catch and treat both respiratory illnesses effectively," says Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark.
She adds, "Our report finds that even during the pandemic, some parents don’t see the flu vaccine as more urgent or necessary. This heightens concerns about how the onset of flu season may compound challenges in managing Covid-19."
Among the 32% of parents who say their child is unlikely to get a flu vaccine this year, the most common reasons include concerns about side effects (42%) or beliefs that it is not effective (32%) or necessary (40%). However, experts caution that such notions are often based on misconceptions about the flu vaccine. They emphasize that the flu vaccine is still the best defense for children against serious health consequences of influenza and the risk of spreading it to others.
"Children should get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but to prevent the spread of influenza to family members and those who are at higher risk of serious complications," writes Clark.
According to the survey, 14% of parents said they will not seek the flu vaccine because they are keeping children away from healthcare sites due to the risk of Covid-19 exposure. "Most child health providers have made changes to their office environment to keep children safe during office visits and vaccinations. Parents who are concerned about Covid-19 exposure should contact their child's provider to learn about what types of precautions have been put in place," recommends Clark.
Nine percent of parents also say their child is afraid of needles or does not want to get the flu vaccine, which prevents them from scheduling an immunization. To address this issue, the report suggests multiple strategies such as using books and comfort positions to help alleviate fears and anxiety among young children.
Benefits of a flu shot
The burden of the influenza disease in the US can vary widely and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that flu has resulted in between 9 million to 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 to 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.
Public health experts say the flu vaccine will help limit the stress on healthcare systems during the pandemic by reducing the number of influenza-related hospitalizations and doctor visits, as well as decreasing the need for diagnostic tests to distinguish flu from Covid-19, which has similar symptoms. "Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor's visits each year," says the CDC.
"For example, during 2018-2019, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 4.4 million influenza illnesses, 2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits, 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations and 3,500 influenza-associated deaths. During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40% 60%," adds the CDC.
Children younger than five, and especially those younger than two, are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications. The CDC reported 188 pediatric flu deaths during the 2019-2020 flu season. A flu vaccine can be lifesaving in children, emphasize health experts. A 2017 study by the agency, which looked at data from four flu seasons between 2010 and 2014, shows that flu shots reduced the risk of flu-associated death by 51% among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly two-thirds (65%) among healthy children.
The nationally representative poll report includes 1,992 responses from parents of children aged 2-18 years who were surveyed in August. Researchers found that families who were least likely to get children vaccinated against the flu were those who did not do so last year: less than a third of those parents (28%) say their child will probably get a flu vaccine this year. In contrast, among parents who said their child got the flu vaccine last year, 96% intend to have their child get the flu vaccine this year.
"A key challenge for public health officials is how to reach parents who do not routinely seek seasonal flu vaccination for their child. When getting a yearly flu vaccine is not a pattern, parents need to be prompted to think about why it’s essential for their child to get vaccinated," says Clark.
The team also found that families whose provider strongly recommends vaccination are more likely to get children vaccinated against the flu. Despite this, less than half of parents say their child's regular healthcare provider strongly recommends that their child get the flu vaccine this year. According to the research team, this may be due to the impact of coronavirus on the healthcare delivery system as many child health providers have limited the number of patients seen for in-person visits, with the increased use of telehealth visits.
This may reduce opportunities for providers to give a strong recommendation about flu vaccination for children and to answer parents' questions about flu vaccine safety and effectiveness, they explain. Clark suggests that given the decrease in in-person visits, child health providers should look for other strategies, such as reminder postcards or website banners, to emphasize the importance of children getting the flu vaccine during this pandemic year.
Parental intention regarding the flu vaccine this year is also slightly lower for parents of teenagers compared to younger children: 73% for children aged 2-4, 70% for ages 5-12 and 65% for ages 13-18. "Teens sometimes receive the flu vaccine outside of their usual health care provider office. Some of those options may be limited by coronavirus, including schools, health fairs and walk-in clinics at a local health department. However, many retail pharmacies are also expanding their flu vaccine services to children during the pandemic," say researchers.