Colds and flu

Updated 05 October 2017

'Alternative' parents more likely to skip kids' flu shot

US kids who had received certain alternative therapies were up to 39 percent less likely to have received a flu vaccination during the past year, according to researchers.

Children who see "alternative" health providers, such as acupuncturists or massage therapists, are less likely than other kids to get their annual flu shot, a new study suggests.

Complementary and alternative medicine

Researchers found that of nearly 9,000 US kids, those who'd received certain alternative therapies were one-quarter to 39 percent less likely to have gotten a flu shot in the past year.

The findings do not prove a cause-and-effect connection, however.

No one knows whether any alternative medicine providers advised parents against having their kids vaccinated, said Dr Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert who was not involved in the study.

Read: Faster vaccination saves lives in flu pandemics

But, he added, some alternative-therapy practitioners do tend to "reject certain aspects of evidence-based medicine".

So it's possible they sometimes influence parents' decisions on flu vaccination, said Poland, a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota.

Open about CAM

No one is saying that kids should not receive complementary and alternative medicine – what researchers call CAM.

"There is nothing inherently wrong with using CAM," said William Bleser, a research assistant at Pennsylvania State University who worked on the study.

He noted that, based on other research, most people who use alternative therapies do it in conjunction with conventional "Western" medicine.

Read: Alternative Medicine

But when parents use CAM, they should be open about it with their paediatrician, so everyone is on the same page, said Bleser and colleague Rhonda BeLue, an associate professor of health policy and administration at Penn State.

Patients might also benefit if medical doctors and CAM providers communicated with each other, the researchers said.

Sceptical about vaccines

The new study findings are based on nearly 9,000 kids, aged 4 to 17, whose families took part in a national health survey. The results were published online in Paediatrics.

Overall, around four to eight percent of kids had ever received an alternative therapy for "health reasons" (other than vitamins or minerals).

It turned out that children who'd received certain CAM therapies were less likely to have gotten a flu shot in the past year.

These included kids who'd been treated through "alternative medicine systems", such as acupuncture, naturopathy and homeopathy; or body-based therapies, like massage, chiropractic manipulation and craniosacral therapy, which is done to relieve pain and tension.

Read: Considering acupuncture?

Roughly one-third of kids who'd received such therapies had gotten a flu shot, versus 43 percent of other kids, the study found.

The study authors did weigh other factors – like parents' education levels and income – and CAM use was still linked to lower odds of flu vaccination.

Vaccine's effectiveness varies

It's possible, Poland said, that parents who are drawn to alternative therapies are also more sceptical about vaccines in general.

However, the study did not look at vaccinations other than the flu shot, BeLue pointed out. So it's not clear whether parents who brought their kids to CAM providers tended to be more leery of vaccines.

Read: Why there's no cure for the common cold

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises everyone aged 6 months and older to get a flu shot each year.

But only about 59 percent of US children and teenagers have gotten the vaccine in recent flu seasons, the agency says.

Some people dismiss the flu shot as ineffective, Poland said.

Flu complications

It's true, he said, that the vaccine's effectiveness varies season to season. It has to be reformulated each year, to protect against the viral strains that researchers believe will be most prevalent in the coming flu season.

According to the CDC, the flu shot typically cuts people's risk of infection by 50 to 60 percent during seasons where the vaccine is a good match for the viral strains in circulation.

"It's not 100 percent effective," Poland said. "But it's a good vaccine, and it's far wiser to get it than to skip it."

Most children who contract the flu recover with no problems. But children younger than five are at relatively greater risk of flu complications, including potentially life-threatening ones such as pneumonia and inflammation of the heart or brain, he explained.

Read: Pneumonia, the ‘silent’ killer

And even a run-of-the-mill bout of the flu is nothing to sneeze at, Poland added.

"Kids will be out of school," he said. "Parents have to take time off from work, other family members will become infected – and it's just miserable."

Read more:

Get your flu shot

Universal flu shot brought closer

Obesity makes flu shot less effective


Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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