Flu shot threshold may fall to 6 months

SEATTLE - National health officials are moving toward recommending flu shots for all children older than 6 months as the disease's effect on kids has become more apparent in recent years - including the deaths this month of two Seattle-area girls.

In meetings this week in Atlanta, top immunization advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention renewed discussion of expanding the current recommendation, which stops at age 5 for most kids. CDC officials and other experts said they might make it official in time for the 2008-2009 flu season.

The agency routinely adopts the recommendations of the committee, as do private physicians, clinics and public-health departments.

"Over the next year or so, this is going to happen; I'm confident," said Dr. Ed Marcuse, associate medical director of Seattle's Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center. Until recently, Marcuse was on the 15-member immunizations committee that advises the CDC.

About 100 children in the United States die of influenza complications annually, according to CDC estimates. Closer tracking of deaths in children began in 2003.

This year, the number will include the two Seattle-area children who died: Sarah Horner, 7, of Kent, on Feb. 5; and Marija Alumbaugh, 8, of Seattle, on Feb. 14. Both died of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, a rare flu complication.

Dr. Tony Fiore, an influenza epidemiologist for the CDC, said the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices might vote in October to expand the vaccination recommendation for children through age 18. It now includes children who have certain chronic illnesses such as asthma or heart disease, as well as children between 6 months and 5 years old.

But first the committee wants to study whether vaccine manufacturers can make enough vaccine to inoculate as many as 50 million children a year, and whether the nation's health-care system can deliver the vaccine in a period of just eight weeks each fall, Fiore said.

The vaccine is generally about 70 percent or more effective in children, experts say.

Deaths are still rare in children compared with the approximately 36,000 total people who die of flu complications each year.

According to the CDC, 153 children died in the 2003-04 season; in 2004-05, 44 died; in 2005-06, 47 died. So far this season, about 15 have died.