From the Journals

COVID-19 may discourage pediatric flu vaccination



Parents who did not vaccinate their children against influenza last year were significantly less likely to do so this year than parents whose children were vaccinated last year, based on survey data from more than 2,000 parents with babies and young children.

A child receives a vaccine injection. Choreograph/Thinkstock

“Pediatric vaccination will be an important component to mitigating a dual influenza/COVID-19 epidemic,” Rebeccah L. Sokol, PhD, of Wayne State University, Detroit, and Anna H. Grummon, PhD, of Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, reported in Pediatrics.

Although the pandemic has increased acceptance of some healthy behaviors including handwashing and social distancing, the impact on influenza vaccination rates remains unknown, they said.

To assess parents’ current intentions for flu vaccination of young children this season, the researchers conducted an online survey of 2,164 parents or guardians of children aged between 6 months and 5 years in the United States. The 15-minute online survey was conducted in May 2020 and participants received gift cards. The primary outcome was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on parental intentions for having their child vaccinated against seasonal flu this year.

“We measured change categorically, with response options ranging from 1 (I became much less likely to get my child the flu shot next year) to 5 (I became much more likely to get my child the flu shot next year),” the researchers said.

Pandemic changes some parents’ plans

Overall, 60% of parents said that the ongoing pandemic had altered their flu vaccination intentions for their children. About 34% percent of parents whose children did not receive flu vaccine last year said they would not seek the vaccine this year because of the pandemic, compared with 25% of parents whose children received last year’s flu vaccine, a statistically significant difference (P < .001).

Approximately 21% of parents whose children received no flu vaccine last year said the pandemic made them more likely to seek vaccination for the 2020-2021 season, compared with 38% of parents whose children received last year’s flu vaccine.

“These results suggest that overall seasonal influenza vaccination rates may not increase simply because of an ongoing infectious disease pandemic. Instead, a significant predictor of future behavior remains past behavior,” Dr. Sokol and Dr. Grummon said.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the use of a convenience sample and the timing of the survey in May 2020, meaning that survey results might not be generalizable this fall as the pandemic persists, they noted. “Additionally, we assessed intentions to vaccinate; future research will clarify the COVID-19 pandemic’s influence on actual vaccination behaviors.”

The challenge of how to increase uptake of the influenza vaccine during the era of COVID-19 remains, and targeted efforts could include social norms messaging through social media, mass media, or health care providers to increase parents’ intentions to vaccinate, as well as vaccination reminders and presumptive announcements from health care providers that present vaccination as the default option, the researchers added.

Potential for ‘twindemic’ is real

The uptake of flu vaccination is especially important this year, Christopher J. Harrison, MD, director of the vaccine and treatment evaluation unit and professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, said in an interview.

“This year we are entering a flu season where the certainty of the timing as well as the potential severity of the season are not known. That said, social distancing and wearing masks – to the extent that enough people conform to COVID-19 precautions – could delay or even blunt the usual influenza season,” he noted.

Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have had their credibility damaged by the challenges of creating a successful response on the fly to a uniquely multifaceted virus to which previous rules do not apply, Dr. Harrison said. In addition, public confidence was eroded when information about testing and reopening policies were released by non-CDC nonscientists and labeled “CDC recommended,” with no opportunity for the scientific community to correct inaccuracies.

“The current study reveals that public trust in influenza vaccine and indirectly in health authorities has been affected by the pandemic,” said Dr. Harrison. “Vaccine hesitancy has increased somewhat even among previous vaccine accepters. One wonders if promises of a quick COVID-19 vaccine increased mistrust of the FDA because of safety concerns, even among the most ardent provaccine population, and whether these concerns are bleeding over into influenza vaccine concerns.

“This only adds to the anxiety that families feel about visiting any medical facility for routine vaccines while the pandemic rages, and we now are in a fall SARS-CoV-2 resurgence,” he added.

Although the current study data are concerning, “there could still be a net gain of pediatric influenza vaccine uptake this season because the 34% less likely to immunize among previously nonimmunizing families would be counterbalanced by 21% of the same group being more likely to immunize their children [theoretical net loss of 13%],” Dr. Harrison explained. “But the pandemic seems to have motivated previously influenza-immunizing families, i.e. while 24% were less likely, 39% are more likely to immunize [theoretical net gain of 15%]. That said, we would still be way short of the number needed to get to herd immunity.”

Dr. Harrison said he found the findings somewhat surprising, but perhaps he should not have. “I had hoped for more acceptance rather than most people staying in their prior vaccine ‘opinion lanes,’ ending up with likely little overall net change in plans to immunize despite increased health awareness caused by a pandemic.”

However, “the U.S. population has been polarized on vaccines and particularly influenza vaccines for more than 50 years, so why would a pandemic make us less polarized, particularly when the pandemic itself has been a polarizing event?” he questioned.

The greatest barriers to flu vaccination for children this year include a lack of motivation among families to visit immunization sites, given the ongoing need for social distancing and masks, Dr. Harrison said.

“Another barrier is the waning public confidence in our medical/scientific national leaders and organizations,” he emphasized. “This makes it crucial that primary care providers step up and be extra strong vaccine advocates, despite the fact that pandemic economics and necessary safety processes have stressed providers and devastated practices. Indeed, in times of medical stress, no one gets more trust from families than their own personal provider.”

Ultimately, avenues for future research include asking diverse groups of families what they feel they need to hear to be more engaged in immunizing children against influenza. But for now, the current study findings identify that “the public is not uniformly responding to the pandemic’s influence on their likelihood of immunizing their children against influenza,” Dr. Harrison said.

“We now know the size of the problem and hopefully governments, public health organizations, pediatric advocates and clinical care givers can find ways to magnify the message that a pandemic year is not a year to avoid seasonal influenza vaccine unless one has a true contraindication,” Dr. Harrison said.

In addition, “one wonders if the poll were taken today – post the president’s COVID-19 illness – would the answers be different?” he noted.

Dr. Sokol’s work was supported in part by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development but otherwise had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Harrison disclosed that his institution receives grant funding from Merck, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline for pediatric noninfluenza vaccine studies on which he is a subinvestigator, and support from the CDC for pediatric respiratory and gastrointestinal virus surveillance studies on which he is an investigator.

SOURCE: Sokol RL, Grummon AH. Pediatrics. 2020 Sep 30. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-022871.

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