WASHINGTON (Reuters) - All U.S. children aged from six months up to 18 should be immunized every year against influenza, a panel of federal vaccine advisers said on Wednesday.
The panel, which advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccine matters, agreed unanimously at its regular meeting in Atlanta that the new recommendations should go into effect as soon as possible, but no later than the 2009-2010 flu season.
The vote from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices would add about 30 million children to the list of those who should be vaccinated, CDC spokesman Curtis Allen said. The current recommendations cover children aged 6 months to 5 years old.
“There about 59 million (children aged 5 to 18) but a lot of those children are already covered under current recommendations,” Allen said in a telephone interview.
Based on current vaccination rates, the CDC predicts about 7 million additional children will be vaccinated because of the expanded recommendations.
Flu infects between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population each year and kills an estimated 36,000 Americans in an average year, most of them elderly. It can also kill young children, often previously healthy children.
The CDC said last week that 22 children had died in this year’s flu season so far. Flu is active in all 50 states now.
Last year, 68 children died of flu in 26 states during a very mild influenza season, according to reports compiled by the CDC. Of them, 39 were aged 5 to 17 and more than 90 percent of all the children who died had not been vaccinated.
“We are very pleased,” said Gary Stein of Families Fighting Flu, who spoke to the meeting.
“Doctors follow these recommendations in advising their patients,” added Stein, whose 4-year-old daughter Jessica died of influenza in 2002. “Parents read it, and vaccination rates are so low that this awareness strongly follows the guidance.”
Dr. Carol Baker, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, agreed.
Babies aged 6 months to 2 years have a very high risk of complications and death from flu, but only 20 percent were vaccinated against influenza in 2006-2007, even though they are regularly being vaccinated against other diseases at this age.
“I think most parents do not understand how dangerous influenza is,” Baker, a pediatrician, said in a telephone interview.
“I think even some health care providers have that attitude, especially those who choose not to vaccinate themselves and who spread flu to their patients.”
This year’s flu vaccine is considered a poor match for two of the strains. Because the virus mutates so quickly, the vaccine is usually formulated afresh each year and includes three different strains of the virus.
For the next flu season beginning at the end of 2008, all three strains will be replaced in the vaccines available globally, the CDC and World Health Organization say.
Besides children, people aged 50 and older are advised to get annual flu vaccines, as well as anyone with certain chronic medical conditions such as cancer or diabetes, people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and caretakers of any of these groups.
Five companies now make flu vaccine for the U.S. market -- Sanofi Pasteur, Australia’s CSL Ltd, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Novartis AG and nasal spray maker MedImmune, recently acquired by AstraZeneca Plc.
Editing by Will Dunham and Derek Caney