MONDAY, Feb. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to health alerts that concern their young children, American parents pay close attention, a new study shows.
Researchers say that as media coverage about the severe influenza season of 2003 intensified, more and more parents followed experts' advice and got their children immunized.
"The effect of the media coverage was more than I thought it would be," said lead researcher Dr. Katherine Poehling, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.
However, that effect did not prevent vaccination rates from being low that season, according to a report released Thursday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Influenza vaccination rates for U.S. children aged 6-23 months were low in the 2003-04 flu season, especially among children who hadn't been previously vaccinated and needed two doses to achieve the maximum benefit, according to Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC publication.
In the 2003-04 flu season, 17.5 percent of children aged 6-23 months received at least one flu shot and only 8.4 percent were fully vaccinated against flu, the report said.
The Vanderbilt findings appear in the February issue of Pediatrics.
Poehling's team wondered whether the media scrutiny of children being stricken with severe flu during the 2003-2004 season impacted national child vaccination rates.
They surveyed parents who brought a total of 256 children, aged between 6 months to nearly 5 years, to the university's clinic or an affiliated acute care clinic during the summer of 2004. The researchers also used data from the university's public affairs office on local and national media coverage of the 2003-04 flu season.
About 38 percent of parents visiting the clinic reported that their child had received the flu vaccine during the flu season. Three-quarters of those who immunized their children did so after the intense media coverage in mid-November, the researchers noted.
That was a big change from the previous year, when vaccine administration was more evenly distributed during the months of October through December.
Besides media coverage, other factors spurred parents to get their children vaccinated, Poehling found, including physicians reminding parents about the flu shot, and parents who had a family member who had also gotten immunized. It also helped if parents had had a routine pediatrician visit scheduled during the flu season.
When parents explained why they got their child vaccinated against flu, "physician recommendation" was the most common reply (60 percent), followed by "media coverage" (26 percent).
Every year in the United States, on average, about 5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu, according to the CDC. More than 200,000 of those infected require hospitalization and about 36,000 Americans die annually from the flu.
About 15 percent to 20 percent of children will get the flu each year, added Poehling. For decades, the CDC has recommended flu vaccine for high-risk children, such as those with asthma and other chronic medical conditions. But beginning in the 2002-3 and the 2003-04 seasons, the CDC began to encourage flu vaccines be given to all healthy children aged 6 to 23 months. The agency further strengthened that advice during last year's season.
One pediatrician said the Nashville findings reflect what happened in his practice. As soon as media coverage increased during the 2003-04 flu season, so did calls requesting flu vaccine, said Dr. Dennis Woo, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
"There's no question the media has a big impact on people's perception," said Woo, who is also assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Woo said a word from a doctor about immunization can be a powerful incentive, too. "If a child is in [for a routine visit], I bring it up," Woo said. He said he tries to educate parents as he gives the vaccination, telling them that it's not 100 percent protective and that most children who get the flu tolerate it well and recover.
Ideally, said Poehling, "you want the flu shot before the flu starts to circulate." That's generally November through January in the United States, she said, but the season can vary from year to year.
To learn more about immunizations for flu and other conditions, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.