A nurse administers a vaccination. | Courtesy of Pixnio

Although a record number of U.S. children died during the last flu season, more than 30 percent of parents say their children are unlikely to get vaccinated this year, according to a national poll.

That’s worrisome to a Louisville-area doctor who said the flu can kill otherwise healthy children.

“I feel a lot of parents liken the flu to any other viral illness or a cold” and think their child won’t get that sick if they contract the flu, said Dr. April Mattingly, a pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Associates – Crestwood.

However, “we know that, unfortunately, kids who are otherwise totally healthy, don’t have any risk factors, such as a heart problem or asthma, can get the flu, and they can die from the flu, and so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the flu vaccine” as the first line of defense.

Nearly 2,000 parents were surveyed about their attitudes on the flu as part of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. It’s a nationally representative household survey of parents with at least one child younger than 19.

In the Mott poll, parents who said their kids were unlikely to get the vaccine were most heavily influenced by family and close friends (45 percent) or other parents (44 percent). Other influences included Internet sites (40 percent), comments from the child’s health care provider (35 percent) or nurses/medical staff (32 percent) and parenting books or magazines (32 percent).

According to the poll, 87 percent of parents who usually follow the recommendation of their child’s health care provider said their child would get the vaccine this year.

The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccination for people ages 6 months and older, preferably by the end of last month, but the flu will be circulating for months to come, so even January or later is of benefit, according to the CDC.

Most people only need one shot, but “we do recommend children under 9 that have not been immunized previously receive two doses, about four weeks apart,” Mattingly said.

Dr. Sarah Moyer, director of the Department of Public Health and Wellness | Courtesy of Metro Government

Dr. Sarah Moyer, Louisville’s chief health strategist, said she always makes sure that her three boys get vaccinated before the end of October.

“The flu shot is the absolute best way parents have to protect their children against this deadly disease,” said Moyer, who found the poll concerning.

There have been more than 100 lab-confirmed cases of the flu in Kentucky this flu season and at least two adult deaths, according to a recent state report. There have been at least 19 confirmed cases locally.

It’s not possible to predict how bad this year’s flu season will be, but the 2017-2018 season packed a wallop. The Associated Press previously reported that 80,000 people across the United States died last flu season, more than any other year in at least four decades.

As of June, the number of child deaths from last flu season had reached 172, exceeding the previous record of 171 for a non-pandemic season, which was 2012-2013, according to the CDC. More recent information from CDC lists 185 child deaths in the 2017-2018 flu season.

Of the initial 172 children who died, 80 percent had not been vaccinated, and about half had a medical condition that put them at risk of complications, according to the CDC.

A survey by Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children indicated that parents are still being influenced by myths, thinking the vaccine might lead to autism or that it can cause the flu itself.

As the body is revving up and making antibodies, a vaccinated person may experience some flu-like symptoms, such as fever, fatigue and aches, “but that is not the same as the flu,” Mattingly said.

The vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective but represents the best-educated guess about which flu strains will make people sick that season. However, even if you still get the flu, “you’re much less likely to end up hospitalized, and you typically will have a less severe illness, and it won’t last as long,” she said.

For people who don’t like needles, a nasal spray is approved for use among non-pregnant individuals, ages 2 to 49, but not all providers offer it. Mattingly said it’s better than going without any protection at all.

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Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.