What's the Issue?
Being a parent requires you to consistently make decisions that involve weighing multiple risks and benefits. Is the risk of getting into the car with your baby and having a fender bender worth the benefits of getting to the supermarket and restocking the fridge? We automatically make dozens of choices like this throughout our day, often without realizing it. Choosing to immunize your baby against influenza is a similar choice. But since it is a medical choice, it requires conscious thought and documented consent.
Consider the Numbers
Most families that discuss the flu shot in my practice choose to give it. And most families do not take this decision lightly: "Is the vaccine effective? Are these vaccines safe for my baby?" they ask. "Does this vaccine have mercury in it?" "Is my infant really at risk?"
Nationally, 48 percent of eligible babies got the flu shot in 2006. This percentage is a function not only of parental choice, but also of factors such as availability of the vaccine to the public. In my family, everyone gets the flu shot every year it is available.
So what are the risks of giving the vaccine? Fever, local pain or redness, fatigue, and fussiness are what I most commonly hear about from my parents one to two days after the vaccine is given. There is also the more serious (but very rare) risk of severe allergy to the vaccine. But I find the risks of not giving the vaccine to be more compelling. An average of 226,000 people are hospitalized each year in the United States because of the flu. And 36,000 deaths each year in this country are attributable to the flu. Infants under two are one of the highest risk populations in the United States. And infants are much more likely to suffer complications from the flu and be hospitalized than other age groups.
What Parents Can Do
Talk to your pediatrician about the pros and cons of giving your child the flu vaccine. (Click here to read the Centers for Disease Control vaccine information sheet.) There is a small group of kids who should definitely not get the vaccine, e.g., children who have had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past (not relevant to your infant since it is her first flu shot) and kids with moderate to severe illnesses, such as pneumonia.
There is also another version of the flu vaccine which is given as a spray in the nose. This vaccine (called FluMist) is presently licensed only for children older than two years. Flu vaccine for infants is almost universally covered by insurance carriers, and everyone in the family should be immunized. Remember, the best way to maximally protect your infant is to immunize all your baby's loving contacts.