Survey: 1 in 3 Parents Won't Give Their Kids Flu Shots This Year

Close up of white person's hands holding a syringe with a child wearing a mask in the background, blurred.


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Key Takeaways

  • Experts say getting an influenza vaccine is especially important this year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • While the flu shot is recommended for most people age 6 months and older, 1 in 3 parents in the U.S. say they won't vaccinate their child against the flu this year.
  • Flu vaccines are safe and effective for most people, including young children. Not only can it offer protection against multiple flu strains, it could also help lessen the severity of a COVID-19 infection.

Knowing that flu season will occur this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts are urging parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu. However, a new report has found that some parents are not convinced.

A recent poll found that while a third of parents in the U.S. think the flu shot is more important this year, another third of parents said they do not plan to vaccinate their child against the flu this fall.

The poll was conducted in August by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at Michigan Medicine. It included data from 1,992 parents with children ranging in age from 2 to 18.

Sarah Clark, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, says that the survey's findings raise concerns about how this year's flu season could complicate the challenges of COVID-19.

Why Flu Shots Matter

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that most people over the age of 6 months of age get a flu shot every year (there are rare exceptions, such as people with certain health conditions or allergies).

“The flu shot is urgent—every year,” Matthew Kronman, MD, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Seattle Children’s, tells Verywell. The flu vaccine is the single best way for children (and adults) to avoid flu illness, flu hospitalization, and even death.

Children under the age of 5—especially those under the age of 2—have a high risk of serious complications from the flu.

According to the CDC, 188 child deaths from the flu were reported during the 2017-2018 season. However, the agency believes that these numbers are underreported; in fact, as many as 600 children might have died from the flu that year. The CDC also notes that among the reported deaths from the flu, 80% of children who died were not fully vaccinated.

Sarah Clark

Children should get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but to prevent the spread of influenza to family members and people at risk for complications.

— Sarah Clark

Kronman says the conclusions from the parent survey highlight the importance of continuing to advocate for children to receive the annual flu vaccine. “Despite a global viral pandemic and other media attention to the importance of the flu shot this year, a third of parents are still reluctant to provide it to their children."

Parents who vaccinated their children last year mostly reported that they plan to do so again ahead of this year's flu season, which Kronman says is a good sign. “This year we have an additional reason to strongly encourage parents to get the flu shot for their children: COVID."

Gregory L. Landry, MD, a retired pediatrician and Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed out that the survey indicates there is more vaccine hesitancy this year, which is troubling. It also provides some insight into the reluctance people have about engaging with the healthcare system for any reason because they fear COVID-19 exposure.

“The pandemic is keeping some families from seeing health provider for anything. They are afraid," says Landry.

The course of the COVID-19 pandemic is unpredictable, and getting a flu shot is the best way to avoid straining an already overburdened healthcare system.

Who’s Vaccinating, Who’s Not

Landry was surprised that fewer parents intended to vaccinate their children this year. Parents who didn't vaccinate their children last year were most likely to say they don't plan to vaccinate their kids this year. On the other hand, 96% of parents who vaccinated their kids against the flu last year say they plan to do so again this year.

"A key challenge for public health officials is how to reach parents who do not routinely seek seasonal flu vaccination for their child," Clark says in a statement. "When getting a yearly flu vaccine is not a pattern, parents need to be prompted to think about why it's essential for their child to get vaccinated."

The survey found that when providers recommend the flu shot to families, children are more likely to receive it. However, less than half of the parents surveyed said that their child’s pediatrician strongly recommended the flu shot.

Clark thinks that could be a result of the pandemic because many pediatricians are seeing a limited number of patients. With most routine visits currently being done via telehealth, the chances that a doctor will discuss or recommend the flu vaccine are lower.

Clark urges pediatricians to find other ways to inform parents of the importance of the flu vaccine, such as sending postcards or letters.

The survey found that parents of teens are less likely to vaccinate against the flu compared to parents of younger kids. The survey found that:

  • Parents of children between the ages of 2 and 4 had the highest rate of intending to vaccinate against the flu this year (73%)
  • Parents of children ages 5 to 12 came in second (70%)
  • Parents least likely to vaccinate against the flu this year are parents with children between the ages of 13 and 18 (65%)

Among the 32% of parents who don't plan to vaccine their children against the flu this year, many cited concerns about the shot's side effects and efficacy.

Other reasons parents are declining the flu vaccine for their kids include:

  • Children are afraid of needles or do not want the vaccine (9%)
  • Fear of SARS-CoV-2 exposure at a healthcare facility or doctor's office (14%)

While social distancing and mask-wearing are still crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19, parents should know that many healthcare facilities and physician practices have made changes to their offices to keep patients safe.

Why Parents Refuse to Vaccinate

Experts have found that parents who hesitate or outright refuse to vaccinate their children often do so because of misconceptions. Clark points out that the flu vaccine offers the best protection against not only contracting the virus but also developing severe illness.

"There is a lot of misinformation about the flu vaccine, but it is the best defense for children against serious health consequences of influenza and the risk of spreading it to others," Clark says. "Children should get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but to prevent the spread of influenza to family members and those who are at higher risk of serious complications."

Gregory L. Landry, MD

Even if a person gets the flu after being vaccinated, it is almost always a milder case.

— Gregory L. Landry, MD

Kronman wouldn’t speculate on why parents refuse the flu vaccine. “I can only remind parents that the flu shot is safe and effective at reducing illness and death due to flu, which is something all parents should want to avoid for their children."

It's important to remember that COVID-19 isn't the only virus that can kill—influenza can be fatal, too. “The vaccine works,” says Landry. “Even if a person gets the flu after being vaccinated, it is almost always a milder case.”

Patients need to get the flu vaccine “each and every year,” Kronman says. Providers should continue to support yearly vaccination, as a flu shot recommendation from a trusted provider can encourage parents to vaccinate.

That said, there will always be parents who hesitate to vaccine their children, but as Landry points out, “Unfortunately, it is based on misinformation."

What This Means For You

Making sure your family is vaccinated against the flu is important every year, but it could prove critical this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the spread of influenza. It's safe and effective for nearly everyone over the age of 6 months old.

The flu vaccine is the best way to make sure that your child doesn't get the flu, and if they do, being vaccinated can make the illness less severe. That's important because young children are at an increased risk for serious flu complications.

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Article Sources
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  1. Michigan Medicine, Mott Poll Report, National Poll on Children’s Health. Flu vaccine for children in the time of COVID. Updated September 28, 2020.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Who Should and Who Should NOT get a Flu Vaccine. Updated September 21, 2020.

  3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Flu & Young Children. Updated September 22, 2020.

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