Flu vaccine rates fail to reflect increased complication risk in children with neurological disorders

13 Apr

Despite children with neurological disorders being at increased risk of flu-related complications, they are no more likely than healthy children to receive the flu vaccination. This is the conclusion of a new study published in the journal Vaccine.
A child getting a flu shot
Researchers found only 50% of parents of children with at least one neurological condition reported vaccinating their child against flu or scheduling them for vaccination, despite their increased risk of flu-related complications.

Conducted by researchers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the University of Louisville, KY, the study also reveals that many health care providers are unaware that children with neurological disorders are more likely to experience flu-related complications.

Cerebral palsy, epilepsy, intellectual disability and muscular dystrophy are among the neurological conditions that can exacerbate flu symptoms for children.

“The reasons for the increased severity of influenza among these children are uncertain,” says lead author Dr. Michael J. Smith, professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Louisville.

“We do know, however, that an NNDD (neurological or neurodevelopmental disorder), intellectual disability, was the most common NNDD associated with pediatric deaths during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. A better understanding of the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that influence flu vaccination of children with NNDDs such as intellectual disability is needed.”

The CDC recommend that all individuals aged 6 months and older receive an annual influenza vaccine – particularly those who are at high risk of complications if they catch the virus, such as children with neurological disorders.

Dr. Smith and colleagues conducted the first study to estimate flu vaccination rates among children with NNDDs in the US.

Only 50% of children with NNDDs were vaccinated against flu

To reach their findings, the team surveyed 2,138 parents of children with at least one condition that increased their risk of flu-related complications, asking them about their children’s flu vaccinations. Of these parents, 1,143 had a child with at least one NNDD and 516 had a child with more than one NNDD.

In addition, the researchers surveyed 412 physicians about their awareness of the increased risk of flu-related complications among children with NNDDs.

Among all parents, 47% said their children had received the seasonal flu vaccine or were due to receive it, while 50% of parents of children with NNDDs said this was the case. This is only slightly higher than the flu vaccination coverage among children aged up to 17 in the general population, which stood at 46.9% in 2013.

What is more, the team found that the presence of an NNDD was not the main driver for parents to vaccinate their children against flu – it was the presence of a chronic respiratory condition.

Around 38% of parents who did not vaccinate their children against flu said they were worried about how the vaccine would affect their child, while 32% said the safety of the vaccine was a concern.

The poor flu vaccination rates among children with NNDDs may be due to lack of awareness among both parents and health care providers that these children are at increased risk of flu-related complications.

The study revealed that while 74% of the 412 physicians surveyed were aware that children with cerebral palsy were at higher risk from flu, fewer were aware of the increased risk associated with other NNDDs. Only 51% realized that epilepsy posed increased risk of flu-related complications for children, while only 46% linked intellectual disability to increased risk.

Commenting on the team’s findings, Dr. Smith says:

“Our research shows that influenza vaccination in children with NNDDs is comparable to vaccination in healthy children – but both rates are suboptimal. More education about the need for annual influenza vaccination is needed, both for parents and health care providers.”

In December 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, in which researchers found children born preterm are at higher risk of flu-related complications, indicating that such children should be highly prioritized for seasonal flu vaccinations.