CDC: 115 Kids Died of Flu Last Season, Most Weren’t Vaccinated

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Children rarely die of the flu, but the illness can be more severe than parents think — which is why, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday, vaccination is crucial.

From Sept. 2010 to August 2011, 115 children under 18 died from flu-related complications, according to the latest CDC report. Nearly half of the deaths were in children who were previously healthy, with no underlying medical conditions that would put them at greater risk for severe disease. And nearly half of the kids were younger than 5 (most were younger than 2). “[Y]oung age in itself is a risk factor” for severe flu, the CDC said in a press release.

The official number of deaths may be small, but it’s likely an underestimate, the CDC said, because the agency’s surveillance method includes only those patients who are tested for influenza and then reported to the CDC. Left out are the majority of children and teens who die from flu, but are never tested.

There’s an easy way to reduce pediatric deaths from flu: vaccination. The CDC’s report shows that based on available vaccination data 77% of the 74 kids who died from flu and were eligible for the flu shot were never fully vaccinated.

Further, half of the kids who died never got antiviral therapy like Tamiflu (olsetamivir) at the hospital. It may be that doctors are waiting for results of flu tests before prescribing drugs, but the CDC recommends antiviral treatment as soon as possible after onset of severe symptoms or hospitalization, especially if kids are at high risk of flu complications and even with a negative flu test.

“Vaccinate first, then use influenza antiviral drugs as a second line of defense against the flu,” said Dr. Lyn Finelli, chief of the CDC’s Surveillance and Outbreak Response Team. “Right now we aren’t fully using the medical tools at our disposal to prevent flu illnesses and deaths in children.”

The CDC recommends flu vaccines for all kids older than 6 months. Even kids who got a flu shot last year — by the government’s count, that’s only half of eligible children — need a new one this season.

For more info, ask your pediatrician or consult this comprehensive FAQ on flu vaccines for kids from the CDC. Also download this useful parents’ guide [PDF] on what to do if your child becomes sick, what underlying conditions put your child at higher risk of flu complications, and what symptoms should tip you off to severe disease.

Sora Song is the editor of TIME Healthland. Find her on Twitter at @sora_song. You can also continue the discussion on Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.