Editor’s Note: Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a primary care pediatrician and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
The concerning scenario has played out in my office over and over again this season. “Your child is due for the flu vaccine today” is interrupted by, “Oh, no, doctor – we don’t like to put unnecessary things in their body.”
The argument comes from parents who vaccinated their children against the flu at ages 1, 2, 3 and 4; parents of children who tolerated the vaccine well, who did not contract the flu, and yet at age 5 the flu shot suddenly became “unnecessary.” I’m even hearing it from parents of siblings. For the child under age 5, parents agree to the flu shot; for the child over age 5, they decline it.
So, what changes at this magical age of 5? Schools in New York City, where I practice, stop requiring the flu shot. “Not required” has translated into “not necessary.”
As dangerous as this misconception is, it’s hard to blame parents when their reasoning is, after all, very logical: If the flu shot was truly necessary, wouldn’t schools require it, like they require so many other childhood vaccinations? Not exactly.
In the United States, vaccine requirement laws are set by each state. Currently only a handful of states, New York included, require children to be vaccinated against the flu to enter daycare or pre-K. It is therefore not surprising that when researchers recently looked at the number of daycare centers around the country that required children to be vaccinated against the flu, they found only 24.5% did so. And once children turn 5, right as they enter elementary school, the flu shot requirement in these handful of states goes away altogether.
To be clear, children are not all of a sudden immune to the flu and its serious complications just because they’ve turned 5. The influenza virus simply does not work that way. It is precisely because the influenza virus can cause a serious, life-threatening illness to children and adults of all ages that both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend everyone over the age of 6 months receive the flu shot every year. Although not perfect, the flu shot is the best way to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the flu and its complications.
But in my office, school requirements are far more powerful than official recommendations from organizations with no tangible role in families’ lives. Even things like the severity of the flu season, or the effectiveness of the vaccine, were recently found by my colleague Dr. Melissa Stockwell and her team at Columbia University not to make a difference in whether parents chose to vaccinate their children.
The way parents in my practice erroneously perceive the flu shot as an “optional” and therefore “unnecessary” vaccine may also reflect the way many adults across this country think of the shot: as some luxury item that somebody else, but not me, needs. The misconception comes on top of so many others around the flu shot – for example, the flu shot causing the flu. Spoiler alert: It does not.
It is no surprise, then, that in a recent survey only half of Americans said they intended to get vaccinated this season and only 63% of children 6 months to 17 years old got vaccinated last season, according to the CDC.
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The agency says more than 3 million people around the country have already contracted the flu this season, 32,000 people have been hospitalized and 1,800 people have died.
When it comes to the flu, we don’t have the luxury of agreeing to disagree. Time is ticking. Whether or not schools and jobs require it, the flu shot is indeed necessary if we are to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the illness.