ATLANTA — All children — not just those younger than 5 — should get vaccinated against the flu, a federal advisory panel said Wednesday.
The panel voted to expand annual flu shots to virtually all children except infants younger than 6 months and those with serious egg allergies.
That means about 30-million more children could be getting vaccinated — although current vaccination rates suggest that only about 7-million would actually receive the shots.
The shots would not be mandatory, but the federal imprimatur would make physicians more likely to offer the vaccine to children.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said all children should start getting vaccinated as soon as possible, acknowledging that many doctors have already ordered their vaccine for the 2008-09 season and may not be able to give the shots until 2009-10. The flu season generally starts in the fall and continues through spring.
The panel's advice is routinely adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issues vaccination guidelines to doctors and hospitals.
Flu shots were already recommended for those considered to be at highest risk of death or serious illness from the flu, including children ages 6 months to 5 years, adults 50 and older, and people with weakened immune systems.
The panel said that should be expanded to include children up to age 18.
Children ages 5 to 18 get flu at higher rates than other age groups, but they don't tend to get as sick. Of the 36,000 estimated annual deaths attributed to the flu, only 25 to 50 occur in children in that age bracket, CDC officials said.
But children who stay home sick from school cause parents to stay home, so reducing the illness in this group should cut down days of lost work, some experts said.
Experts believe giving flu shots to more children may also prevent the illness from spreading to adults and the elderly, although studies haven't clearly established that will happen.
Shots are not the only option. A nasal spray vaccine, FluMist, is approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49.
The committee emphasized that children younger than 9 who are receiving their first vaccination should receive two doses.
The vaccine does not provide complete protection, because the flu virus mutates continually and the strains incorporated in the vaccine are selected more than a year in advance of flu season. Because of such changes, this season's vaccine is a particularly poor match for circulating viruses — but experts say that it still provides some protection.
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.