Taking Aim Against the Flu

dr_urbach_0001Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC is part of a nationwide effort aimed at reducing vaccine-preventable diseases — starting with the flu.

In September, Children’s Hospital received a $5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to become a New Vaccine Surveillance Network (NVSN) site. We join a select group of academic medical centers nationwide that survey for infectious diseases in children and evaluate vaccine effectiveness.

As an NVSN site, we’ll collect valuable information on respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses circulating in Allegheny County. We hope to play a critical role in detecting emerging disease outbreaks and guiding national health policy decisions.

It’s a timely award that was announced at the start of another flu season. While there’s no way of predicting how bad the 2016-2017 flu season will be, we do know the flu vaccine can be a lifesaver.

We’re deeply committed to the safety and well-being of our patients, many of whom already have compromised immune systems or are too young to be vaccinated. That’s why it’s mandatory for all Children’s employees and volunteers to be immunized against the flu.  Those exempted from getting the flu shot for medical or religious reasons, although rare, must wear a surgical mask when in a patient or clinical area, or within six feet of patients during flu season.

For most people, catching the flu is just a nasty experience, but it can lead to serious illness. As clinicians, we know how frightening — even heartbreaking — it can be for parents. Children with the flu can get very sick, very fast, and even die.

Parents are the front line of defense against the flu when it comes to the health of your child or children. That’s why I urge parents to understand the importance of flu shots for everyone in the family. Here are six points to consider:

Flu is preventable. According to the CDC, about 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu-related complications each year and thousands die. The CDC says 85 children died from the flu in surveillance areas last year, meaning the overall mortality numbers were even higher.
The CDC says everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine — especially those at high risk: young children, pregnant women, people with certain chronic health conditions, and seniors 65 and older.
Even children with severe egg allergies should get a flu shot, but in a medical setting under the supervision of a care provider qualified to manage severe allergic reactions.
Children ages 8 and younger require two flu shots — given at least 28 days apart — if they haven’t already received at least two doses in the past of flu vaccine.
Two vaccines have been produced for this year’s flu season — both using an inactivated virus in shot form. The trivalent vaccine protects against two influenza A strains (H1N1 and H3N2), and one influenza B strain, while the quadrivalent vaccine protects against the same strains, plus an extra influenza B virus.
The flu nasal spray is no longer recommended, based on data showing it wasn’t effective. Good news – children younger than 8 years who received the nasal spray last year only need one shot now.

Working together, we can help tame the flu — saving lives and eliminating emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and lost hours of work and school. It’s a fight worth waging.

Andy Urbach, MD, is medical director for Patient Experience and Development at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. He is also a hospitalist with the Paul C. Gaffney Diagnostic Service at Children’s Hospital. Dr. Urbach welcomes your comments and questions.