Canaries in the flu season coal mine?
Kids under 5 first to get the flu, new study says
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Health roundup Little kids don’t always like to share, unless, of course, you’re talking about their germs. That’s the one thing they share without even being asked.
And according to a new study, kids under the age of 5 are the first to develop influenza during flu season, and are good indicators of flu season’s arrival.
The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that about four weeks after kids under 5 visit the doctor with flu symptoms, flu-ridden adults begin stumbling in.
"What we found is that consistently it’s the 3- and 4-year-olds that lead off the influenza epidemic every year," says Dr. Kenneth D. Mandl, a pediatric emergency physician at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-author of the study.
And although children ages 3 to 4 are most likely to contract influenza early and to pass it on to others, they are not targeted to get flu vaccinations. Some researchers and doctors, including Mandl, believe vaccinating preschool-age kids each fall might mean less flu for everyone.
Still, while health officials say universal vaccination is their goal, vaccine shortages mean people on the priority list—those with chronic illnesses, people over age 65, infants and pregnant women—get the vaccines first. There are currently no plans to add preschoolers to that priority list.
Dr. Tina Tan, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, says the study confirms what people have suspected for awhile.
"These kids are indexes of when influenza is going to be in the community," says Tan. "They’re definitely the spreaders."
Tan says preschool-age kids are more likely to get sick because they are in a closed environment where there is constant physical contact with other children.
"That’s an age when kids drool all over each other," Tan says.
That means kids in preschool and daycare centers are likely to bring the flu home, says Margaret Fitzpatrick, a school nurse at Morgan Park Academy in Chicago.
"If there are two children who are licking their fingers and playing with a toy, [influenza] is going to spread to the class very quickly and to their families," Fitzpatrick says.
"The No. 1 way to prevent infection is effective hand washing," adds Fitzpatrick, who also wrote the book What to Ask the Doctor.
Teaching kids good hygiene, such as coughing and sneezing in their sleeves rather than on their classmates, also helps, says Mandl.
Parents should also keep sick kids out of school and away from family members who may be vulnerable to the flu.
That’s easier said than done, says Nicole Hill, a Chicago mom of five—the youngest of whom, 2-year-old Matthew Arnold, just came down with a runny nose and cough.
"I try to keep them away from each other," Hill says. But she knows, like most parents, the flu catches them all eventually. "That’s how it always happens."
Arti Nehru, Medill News Service