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Flu Vaccination for Kids: a Moral Obligation?

Written by Ben Bambery and Julian Savulescu

Rosie Anderson, aged 8, died from influenza infection last Friday the 15th of September. Her tragic death followed the recent death of young father, Ben Ihlow, aged 30, who died suddenly on Father’s Day this year, also from influenza infection.

Contrary to public perception, “the flu” is a deadly disease. In Victoria this year, at least 97 people have lost their lives to influenza. The majority of these deaths are amongst the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease, but as made painfully clear by Rosie and Ben’s deaths, the flu kills young people too.

Medical evidence has shown that increasing vaccination uptake rates in children is the best way to decrease death rates, not just for children like Rosie, but for everyone else in society, including those at high risk, like the elderly, pregnant women, and indigenous Australians.

The reason vaccinating children is so effective is because children are much more likely than adults to get influenza each year, while they can also spread the infection easily to others. This is primarily because children have naïve immune systems that don’t fight off infections as readily as adults. Children also go to school, where other children with similarly naïve immune systems go each day, and air-born diseases may be easily transmitted.

What children pick up at school they bring home at the end of the school day – this exposes siblings, parents, grandparents, neighbours, sports coaches etc. to potentially deadly influenza infections.

The influenza vaccine isn’t perfect, but for the majority of people it does a very good job at decreasing the chance of getting the flu. The cost for children is a relatively small out of pocket expense (~AUD$11), and large, well-designed medical studies suggest a less than 1 in 250,000 chance of a serious complication from vaccination, such as allergy, which are usually medically treatable in the majority of cases.

Increasing vaccine rates in kids means less chance children get the flu, less chance the flu spreads throughout our community, and less chance that people die from flu.

It means less chance that kids like Rosie don’t see their 9th birthday. Or less chance Dad’s like Ben Ihlow miss out on raising their children.

As a first world society who cares about preventing unnecessary deaths, we need to sit with the pain and tragedy of recent flu deaths and begin respecting the flu for what it is: a deadly disease.

Parents should make annual flu vaccination for their kids a higher priority. The Australian government could also help by expanding the flu vaccination program and follow the lead of countries like England, where free influenza vaccines are available for all school-aged children, cleverly delivered through school-based programs, minimising the effort required of parents to vaccinate their kids and increasing vaccine rates.

If we can do something that prevents great harm to someone at little cost, we should do that thing. Together we can prevent deaths of healthy elder and young people, at very little, if any, risk.

It’s time we placed a higher value on vaccinating kids against the flu.

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