Chicago Survey Shows Some Parents Still Refuse Flu Vaccine for Their Kids, and Why

January 17, 2019

Experts urge parents to get flu vaccine for their kids to prevent potentially serious illness

Influenza has come to Chicago again, and getting vaccinated against flu is known to prevent the illness. However, in a new survey released by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), 14 percent of Chicago parents said that they had refused at least one vaccine recommended for their children. Among this group, 83 percent refused the flu vaccine. The majority of parents who refused the flu vaccine were worried about side effects. Other common reasons for refusal were concerns about long-term health effects and belief that the flu vaccine was not necessary.

“When parents refuse flu vaccine for their children, they miss an opportunity to protect their kids,” says Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP, Senior Vice President and Chief of Community Health Transformation at Lurie Children’s, and Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine, Medical Social Sciences, and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The flu can be a very serious disease for children, but it is preventable. We urge parents to vaccinate their children against the flu every year. It’s still not too late to get the flu vaccine for your child this season.”

Already in the 2018-19 flu season, Chicago has seen an increase in flu-related illnesses and several children and adults hospitalized because of severe cases of flu. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 185 U.S. children died from flu-related illnesses in 2017-18, including 9 children in Illinois.

Although the CDC recommends that all children who are 6 months and older receive the flu vaccine, only 55 percent of Illinois children received it in 2017, compared with over 84 percent of eligible children who received the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis) vaccine and 92 percent who received the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

“Both DTaP and MMR vaccinations are required for childcare facilities and schools in Illinois, so it’s not surprising that more children receive them, compared to the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Davis. “Making annual flu vaccination for children mandatory could be an effective strategy for increasing flu vaccination rates in Chicago children.”

Flu vaccination for children who attend licensed childcare programs is mandatory in some states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio and Rhode Island. A study on the impact of the mandate in Connecticut found that it substantially increased the rate of vaccination among young children (from 68 percent to 84 percent). New York City also recently mandated flu vaccination for children (6 months - 5 years of age) who attend city-regulated childcare and educational institutions.

While parents expressed concerns about side effects of the flu vaccine, the most common side effects are mild, including redness or tenderness where the shot was given. Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare. Despite popular beliefs, the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu because it does not carry the flu virus.

“People sometimes feel like they are coming down with an illness after receiving the flu vaccine, but what is really happening is that the body is building up antibodies that protect against the flu virus,” explains Dr. Davis. “It’s essential for parents to know that young children in particular are at higher risk for severe illness and complications. The flu vaccine should be considered one of the most important childhood immunizations.”

“The flu vaccine is the most effective way to help protect children and families from the flu and its potentially severe complications,” says CDPH Commissioner Julie Morita, MD.  “Even though the vaccine doesn’t prevent all cases of influenza, it can keep you from getting seriously ill and help avoid hospitalizations,” she advises. “Individuals seeking vaccines should call their health care provider or retail pharmacies (people 10 years and older can receive this vaccine at a pharmacy). Individuals without health care providers or insurance, can call 311 to find a nearby health department clinic.”

The survey also revealed that younger parents (18-29 years of age) were more likely than older parents to have refused flu vaccination for their children. Racial and ethnic differences in flu vaccine refusal for children also emerged, with Black parents more likely to have refused it compared to other groups.

Results are based on the 2017-18 Healthy Chicago Survey, Jr., that was developed by Dr. Davis in collaboration with the CDPH Office of Epidemiology and Research. Phone interviews were conducted between December 2017 through June 2018 with 3,310 adults, including parents and non-parents, in randomly selected households across Chicago, with participants in all 77 community areas. Among 1,002 parents in the sample, those who had refused vaccination for their children were asked what kind of vaccines they refused and why.

To share the survey results, Dr. Davis launched “Voices of Child Health in Chicago,” a research program focused on bringing the perspectives of Chicagoans to inform dialogue and action about child health in the city. On a regular basis, data briefs will be issued that report on a wide range of survey result topics, ranging from bullying to social problems like gun violence that affect youth health. 

Population-focused child health research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Research, Outreach, and Advocacy Center at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of new knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals in the U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 212,000 children from 49 states and 51 countries.