CHICAGO - More children have died from flu because they also had staph infections, according to a new government report that urges parents to have their kids get the flu shot.
The number of deaths wasn't high — 73 during the 2006-07 flu season — but there was more than a fivefold increase in hard-to-treat complications. And preliminary figures indicate deaths rose again during this past winter's flu season.
Public health officials say the numbers underscore the importance of a brand new recommendation that all children, from 6 months through 18 years, get routine flu shots. Before this year, shots were recommended for kids under 5 years.
More than half the children who died were between ages 5 and 17 and had been healthy until they got the flu.
Parents shouldn't panic, "but it's an important message to say even healthy children develop complications and die almost before anything much can be done for them," said Dr. Gregory Poland, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist. He was not involved in the federal study, but has worked with a federal vaccine advisory committee and has consulted for vaccine makers.
Flu season is just beginning, and this year's vaccine should be widely available this month.
While few children die from the flu virus, it puts about 20,000 U.S. kids in the hospital each year.
Only 6 percent of the children studied who died had been fully vaccinated against the flu. Two doses are recommended each flu season for children ages 6 months to 8 years who have not been vaccinated previously; for older kids, just one dose a year is needed.
The study, appearing in the October edition of Pediatrics for release Monday, is based on an analysis of reported flu deaths from the 2004-05 through 2006-07 seasons. Flu deaths in children during those seasons totaled 47, 46 and 73, respectively.
The percentage of those who also had bacterial infections jumped from 6 percent to almost 36 percent. Most had staph infections, and 60 percent of those involved the dangerous MRSA bug, which is resistant to antibiotics.
More recent data suggest flu deaths among children have continued to rise, with 86 tallied for the 2007-08 season in a preliminary report last month, said Lyn Finelli, the study's lead author, who is a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Preliminary information also suggests there has been no drop in fatal flu-staph cases in children, and those could still be on the rise too, she said.
Staph germs commonly live in the nose or skin without causing illness; more than one-fourth of U.S. children and adults carry them.
These bugs can become deadly when they get into the bloodstream, sometimes through wounds. The flu is thought to make people more susceptible to bacterial infections like staph, Finelli said.
Details on how children in the study died were not available, but some developed bacterial pneumonia, seizures and shock.
Finelli said parents should take children to the doctor when they have flu symptoms and signs of other complications. These could include extreme fatigue, no thirst, or in older children complaints about feeling very ill.