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Flu Shots Don't Prevent Ear Infections in Babies

But the vaccines offer protection from other complications

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 24, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Ear infections are a common complication of the flu. So, a flu shot should help protect children against these infections, right?

Not necessarily, at least for children under 2 years of age, concludes a study in the Sept. 24 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study found that giving the influenza vaccine to young, healthy children was effective in preventing flu or reducing the severity of the infection, but it didn't have much effect on the number of ear infections in this age group.

"We did not find a substantial reduction of ear infections," says study author Dr. Alejandro Hoberman, chief of the division of general academic pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Hoberman says the reason is because ear infections are caused by many different viruses, not just influenza. "The main factor in the age group we studied is that they tend to have many more viruses than older children do," he explains.

Ear infections, also known as acute otitis media, are the most common illness in babies and young children, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. By the age of 3, three of four children have had at least one ear infection.

In acute otitis media, the inside of the ear is swollen and fluid and mucus are trapped in the ear. The infections can be painful.

For this study, Hoberman and his colleagues recruited almost 800 healthy children to participate in the two-year, randomized, placebo-controlled research. The children were all between the ages of 6 and 24 months. During the first year, 373 children were given either two doses of the flu shot or two doses of a placebo. In the second year of the study, 346 children received either the vaccination or a placebo injection.

"The vaccine was safe and efficacious for preventing 66 percent of influenza infections," Hoberman says.

But, it was not particularly effective in reducing the number of ear infections. In the first year of the study, 49 percent of children who were vaccinated had ear infections, versus 52 of those who received the placebo. In the second year, which was a very mild year for flu infections, the numbers were 56 percent to 48 percent, respectively.

Does that mean it's OK to skip a flu vaccine for your child? Absolutely not, say the experts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children between the ages of 6 and 23 months be vaccinated against the flu because they're in a high-risk group for serious complications.

In fact, children under 2 years of age are just as likely to be hospitalized from complications of the flu as are people over 65 years, according to the CDC.

"Parents should recognize that reducing the severity of influenza and its complications, like asthma and pneumonia, are still legitimate reasons to get the influenza vaccine," says Dr. Andrea McCoy, an associate professor of pediatrics at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

The best time to get the flu vaccine is in October or November -- well before flu season starts -- to give your body a chance to develop antibodies to the virus.

More information

To learn more about children's ear infections, visit the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. For more information on the flu vaccine, go to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Alejandro Hoberman, M.D., chief, division of general academic pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh; Andrea McCoy, M.D., associate professor, pediatrics, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia; Sept. 24, 2003, Journal of the American Medical Association
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