Amid the headlines and political frenzy surrounding the flu shot shortage, there seems to be little mention that this is the first year children under 2 are being told to get a flu shot and the chances are good few will be available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended children age 6-23 months get a flu shot.
The CDC’s move recognizes the risk flu poses to small children. And this season, the risk is greater, because the Chicago area is also in the midst of a pertussis outbreak—another disease dangerous to infants.
Most pertussis deaths occur in children under 2 months. And the largest number of children hospitalized for flu are under age 2, says the CDC.
The Illinois Department of Public Health recommends this month as the best time to get both vaccinations. Flu shots should be available at local health centers or your pediatrician.
Although the flu shortage will make it difficult to get shots for healthy children, high-risk children, including those 6-23 months, will be given priority, says Tammy Leonard, state health spokesperson. But vaccines are not assured even for that group and she says parents must be patient. If your child does not get a vaccine right away, try again in the next 6-8 weeks when the CDC redistributes doses, she says.
While the November-April flu season is just starting, whooping cough first was reported in the Chicago area this summer. So far, whooping cough, or pertussis, has primarily affected school-aged children. But pertussis is a highly contagious disease, spread through coughing and sneezing, which means babies can easily catch it from an infected older child.
“In babies, you have that characteristic whoop that if you heard, you’ll never forget it,” says Dr. Barbara Slade, medical officer for the CDC’s National Immunization Program. “Babies can lose their breath and turn a little blue.”
If left untreated, the disease can lead to seizures, pneumonia or even death.
There is no state mandate requiring schools to notify parents about cases of whooping coughs, but most schools follow CDC guidelines and notify families, asking parents to keep infected children home.
If you can get a shot, you should. The best precaution against pertussis and the flu is be immunized, says Tina Tan, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Memorial Hospital. Family members in close contact with children under 6 months should also take the flu shot if one becomes available, she says, and children with chronic health conditions should be given the vaccine early because they are at higher risk for flu complications.
The pertussis vaccine is recommended for children at 2, 4, 6 and 15 months, and at 4 to 6 years. Children who have never had a flu shot need two doses, one month apart. For parents of young children, giving their infant too many shots can be unnerving.
“I’m a little concerned,” says Tiffany Laczkowski, Evanston mother of a 2-year-old son. “But I’d rather him get a vaccine than not at all. The only thing I’ve asked is that he gets no more than three at a time. It makes me feel better.”