Glendale mom and music executive Rebecca Burman is in a quandary.
She knows that officials are predicting a particularly bad flu season and that children under 5 are a high risk group. Yet she's not sure she's going to get her 15-month-old son JD vaccinated.
When she took him to her pediatrician for the shot last year, he had a terrible reaction. He was inconsolable all night, "just screaming and crying," she said. "He didn't even want to be held."
It’s a concern that public health officials are familiar with, according to Dr. Robert Schechter, medical officer with the California Department of Public Health’s Immunization Branch.
But the “safety of the influenza vaccine has been looked at quite a lot and it’s very safe,” he said. Millions of children have been studied.
The most frequent side effect for children is redness, soreness, or discomfort at the injection site. There might also be fever or minor cold or flu symptoms in the days after the immunization, but “rarely is it more than that,” according to Dr. Harvey Karp, Assistant Professor in the USC School of Medicine and author of the popular baby help book “Happiest Baby on the Block."
And the “chance of getting the flu is enormous,” he said.
After JD had a bad reaction last year, Burman, consulted like-minded moms on a listserve called the Booby Brigade and found many who questioned whether the flu vaccination was safe and effective.
“You know the Booby Brigade spans all types of mothers and there are a lot of the more homeopathic and natural leaning moms, and I did get people who completely agreed that the flu shot is not something they should do,” she said. But she's going to talk with her pediatrician before making a decision this year.
More than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year due to complications from the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Vincent Racaniello, a Columbia University professor and one of the nation's foremost experts on viruses, said 20,000 of them were children. Because their immune systems are immature, once kids have the flu it is easy for them to develop other serious diseases.
It's those secondary illnesses that are the big worry, said Michael Walsh, an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the State University of New York, Downstate.
“Pneumonia is the biggest killer in complicated flu among kids,” he said.
Racaniello, of Colombia University, said that parents shouldn't shrug off the shot on the basis of not having had the flu before. "Just because you haven't been infected [before] doesn’t mean your children won’t be infected and certainly doesn’t mean that you won’t be infected in the next week or the next month or the next year.”
Officials did offer one warning to parents: avoid pharmacy flu shots for young children. They are typially meant for adults and contain a mercury preservative that kids should avoid. Take your children to their pediatrician, most of which stock preservative-free influenza shots.
Flu symptoms that are most common in children are vomiting and diarrhea. The season, which typically hits highs in January and February, is already in full swing, the CDC said. Lab tests have already confirmed cases in nearly every state.