Call to ‘arms’: Doc adamant about flu shots for kids

The “flu season” is here again and local pediatrician Dr. Marza Penny makes no bones about her top priority this time of year.

She wants every child she treats over the age of 6 months to get a flu shot.

In fact, she insists on it.

For Penny, now entering her 20th year of treating the Treasure Coast’s youngest patients, flu shots and other childhood vaccinations are pretty much non-negotiable. Her reasoning is simple.

For a child, influenza can be a killer.

“The flu virus,” Penny explains, “is very tricky.” That’s in part because influenza viruses are constantly evolving. Even with a flu shot, children – as well as adults – can still experience a few days of feeling downright awful. But as Penny points out, “It’s better to have a chance of having some immunity than to have none at all.”

Think about it.

A child’s immune system is at a distinct disadvantage compared to an adult’s. “A big reason why,” Penny continues, “is because they’re new to the world. Their immune system hasn’t been exposed to certain antigens. They have to be exposed to [them] and fight the illness and then they become somewhat immune to some of those organisms.”

Put even more bluntly, a child who does not get a shot this year might not even be here next year. Just let that sink in.

Your child or grandchild might well be the brightest, best-looking, cutest kid in the neighborhood, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young children are among those at the highest risk for developing serious complications – including pneumonia, sepsis and septic shock – from the influenza virus each year.

Any of which can be a death sentence for a child.

The American Thoracic Society, for example, reports that “pneumonia is the world’s leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age, accounting for 15 percent of all deaths of children under 5.”

An estimated 935,000 pneumonia deaths are reported worldwide in that age group annually, and in the United States pneumonia is the single largest reason children are admitted to hospitals.

Sepsis is no better. The National Institutes of Health points out that “the people at highest risk [for sepsis] are infants, children and the elderly” and the triggers for sepsis are most commonly various forms of bacteria, fungi and viruses – including the influenza virus.

Sepsis, says NIH, “strikes more than a million Americans each year” and when it does, blood pressure can drop precipitously, the heart can weaken and multiple organs including the lungs, kidneys and liver can quickly fail.

Compare those potential outcomes to the momentary sting of a hypodermic needle and – for most intelligent parents – getting their child a flu shot is a no-brainer. A flu shot can’t guarantee your child will avoid the flu or its potential side-effects, but it can exponentially tilt the odds in your child’s favor.

Pediatricians like Penny are painfully aware of the anti-vaccination voices that have sprouted up online in recent years, and this easy-going doctor with the wide smile and easy laugh turns almost somber when that topic is broached.

“Oh, boy. It’s difficult,” says Penny. “I have kind of dropped the ax on this and said, ‘Look. If you don’t immunize [your children] then I’m not going to care for [them].’ I follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the CDC. I don’t know about these blogs and what [those parents are] reading but it’s just not appropriate to get your child’s treatment advice off the Internet.”

The plain fact is that immunizations work. Diseases such as measles – which once claimed thousands of children’s lives each year in this country – were largely eradicated until anti-vaccine parents stopped getting their children vaccinated.

In fact, a study just released by the Journal of the American Medical Association says that of the 1,789 cases of measles which have been reported over the past 14 years, 99 percent were in people who had not received the vaccine, and as the Washington Post reported that same day, “babies and toddlers have the least protection.”

The good news, according to Penny, is there are now vaccines that help build immunity to multiple diseases with just one shot such as the “ProQuad,” which Penney says “is measles, mumps, rubella and varicella. Measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox all in one vaccine.”

She adds, “We have a lot of combination vaccines. We have [another] one called Pentacel. It has five components. It’s diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and haemophilus influenza B. You get five in one poke.”

Dr. Marza Penny is at Penny Pediatrics at 8005 Bay Street, Suite 4 across from the Sebastian River Medical Center. The phone number is 772-581-0300. 

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