A national poll from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at Michigan Medicine shows despite expert advice about its importance during the coronavirus pandemic, many parents will not be getting their children vaccinated to fight the flu.
Doctors are encouraging everyone to get a flu shot because sickness related to the flu and coronavirus could overwhelm the health care system this fall.
But the national study of nearly 2,000 parents shows one in three don't plan to vaccinate their children against the flu, with families who were least likely to get children vaccinated were those who didn’t do so last year.
Why? Many of those parents voiced concerns about side effects or believed the flu shot isn’t necessary or effective.
Experts say these notions are often based in misconceptions about the flu vaccine, which still offers the best protection against both contracting the virus and also developing severe influenza-related illness.
“There is a lot of misinformation about the flu vaccine, but it is the best defense for children against serious health consequences of influenza and the risk of spreading it to others,” Clark says.
Fourteen percent of parents said they will not seek the flu vaccine because they are keeping children away from health care sites due to the risk of COVID exposure, according to the Mott Poll.
“Most child health providers have made changes to their office environment to keep children safe during office visits and vaccinations,” says Clark. “Parents who are concerned about COVID exposure should contact their child’s provider to learn about what types of precautions have been put in place.”
Nine percent of parents also say their child is afraid of needles or does not want to the get flu vaccine, which prevents them from scheduling an immunization.
In response, Mott teams recommend several strategies, including using books and comfort positions to help alleviate fears and anxiety among young children.
“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,” says Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark.
Influenza has led to between 9 to 45 million illnesses, 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 61,000 deaths a year since 2010, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control.
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.
And according to the Mott Poll report, families whose provider strongly recommends vaccination are more likely to get children vaccinated against the flu.
Still, less than half of parents say their child’s regular health care provider strongly recommends that 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,” Clark says. “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.”
Clark notes that this may be due to the impact of COVID on the health care delivery system, as many child health providers have limited the number of patients seen for in-person visits, with 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.
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, Clark says.
Reports from the state health department and CDC indicate that during the pandemic, the overall rates of childhood vaccinations dropped significantly in states like Michigan. Children appeared to be falling behind on vaccinations for diseases like measles and pertussis (whooping cough), magnifying public health concerns about kids potentially catching vaccine-preventable diseases
Experts say the flu vaccine will help limit the stress on health care systems during the pandemic by reducing the number of influenza-related hospitalizations and doctor visits, and decreasing the need for diagnostic tests to distinguish flu from COVID, which has similar symptoms.
“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,” Clark says.