A simple yearly flu shot could prevent most flu-related deaths in children, according to a new study.
While the flu season is winding down, research shows that parents need to remember the benefits flu shots offer, when it rolls around again next fall.
Scientists found that about three-quarters of U.S. kids who died of flu complications between 2010 and 2014 were unvaccinated before they fell ill.
If all children got their yearly flu shot, 65 percent of those deaths could be prevented, the researchers estimated.
Experts said the findings support what health officials already recommend; adults and children age 6 months and up should be vaccinated ahead of every flu season.
It’s not a common occurrence, but children can die of the flu. When it does happen, "it's a tragedy," said Brendan Flannery, a researcher at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who led the study.
"People often don't consider the flu to be very serious," Flannery said. "But it can be, and even children can die."
Healthy kids can become seriously ill and develop complications such as pneumonia. The risk is higher among children with certain medical conditions, including asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.
Flannery's team found that a flu shot could cut the risk of death among both healthy kids and those with "high-risk" medical conditions.
The findings are based on 358 children and teenagers who died of a flu infection that was confirmed by laboratory testing, over four flu seasons. Only one-quarter had been vaccinated -- though the rate was higher among kids with underlying medical conditions.
Of 153 children with high-risk conditions, 31 percent had gotten a flu shot.
The researchers then compared those kids with three large groups of U.S. children whose flu vaccination rates had been tracked. Overall, 48 percent of these children had been vaccinated for flu, the study found.
On average, the CDC team estimated, 65 percent of flu-related deaths could be prevented if all U.S. kids got their yearly flu shot. Among children with high-risk medical conditions, the vaccine could cut the risk of death in half.
While the flu vaccine isn’t foolproof, it typically reduces the risk of getting the flu or makes it less severe. The flu vaccine has to be reformulated each year, depending on the most dominant strain of virus.
"With an imperfect vaccine, we'll still see deaths from the flu," Flannery said. "But vaccination does reduce the risk."
Despite that, many U.S. children -- even those with high-risk medical conditions -- go unvaccinated.
One likely reason, Offit said, is that it's a yearly shot. That makes it inconvenient, he noted -- but also, to some people, "implies that it's not very good."
Flannery agreed that some people believe the flu shot does not work. To some extent, he said, that's due to uncertainty about what the flu is: Some people confuse it with the common cold, or even a stomach infection. If they fall ill with those infections after getting a flu shot, they think the vaccine didn't work.
The flu vaccine can help prevent hospitalizations, time off work for parents and a lot of misery for the kids, Flannery noted.
In addition, some parents worry about the vaccine's safety, particularly if their child has a chronic health condition.
But, Flannery stressed, "the vaccine is recommended for children with high-risk medical conditions because it is safe."
In the U.S., flu season usually runs between October and April.
The findings were published online in the journal Pediatrics.