- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Flu-shot season begins next week, and this year marks the first time parents are being urged to get babies and toddlers vaccinated because influenza sends its tiniest patients to the hospital as often as it does the elderly.
But there's a catch: Unlike the one yearly shot most people need, the first-ever inoculation for young children requires two doses a month apart. So experts are urging parents not to delay that first pediatrician visit so children get both shots in the recommended time.
There's plenty of flu vaccine this year, say federal health officials, who estimate that 94 million doses will be shipped.
Still, it takes awhile to send vaccine to every doctor's office and vaccination clinic. The government is calling for people at the highest risk of severe illness during flu season to be first in line in October and urging healthy people to wait until November to get their shots.
High-risk people are:
Everyone older than 50.
Anyone with chronic medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the flu, such as heart or lung disorders, including asthma, diabetes, kidney disease or weak immune systems.
Children ages 6 months to 2 years.
Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Women who will be more than three months pregnant during the flu season.
Children of any age on long-term aspirin therapy.
November offers plenty of time for healthy people to avoid flu's misery, reassures vaccine specialist Dr. Walter Orenstein of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It takes only two weeks after vaccination to get full protection, and influenza typically doesn't start causing outbreaks until late December or January. But the schedule ensures that if influenza strikes abnormally early, those most at risk of dying will be protected.
Dr. Orenstein cautions that it is not OK to skip the vaccine just because recent flu seasons have been mild. Even in a mild season, up to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, 114,000 people are hospitalized and 20,000 die. Despite that toll, only about a third of people with asthma or other flu-worsening conditions are vaccinated each year.
"If I were rolling the dice, I would err on the side of getting vaccinated because the likelihood of continuing to have mild seasons is very slim," Dr. Orenstein said.
Why this winter's focus on babies? Recent research suggests children younger than 2 are as likely to be hospitalized with flu complications such as pneumonia as are people older than 65 the age group long thought to be at highest risk. The CDC is working to confirm that, but meanwhile decided to encourage vaccinating babies age 6 months to 2 years.
The vaccine can't be given to younger infants, whose family and caregivers are urged to get vaccinated themselves so they don't spread the virus to newborns.
While the elderly are at high risk of death from flu, hospitalizing babies usually saves them. But it's traumatic and exposes babies to unnecessary antibiotics until doctors confirm they have viral flu, not a bacterial infection, said Dr. Leonard B. Weiner, pediatric infectious disease chief at the State University of New York at Syracuse. Worse, germ-filled hospitals expose already weak babies to other infections.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encouraged pediatricians to stock vaccine for more babies than ever this fall. But it will be next year before flu shots are included in the federal program that provides childhood vaccines for free to the needy, Dr. Orenstein said.

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