Worrying about my baby during flu season

My younger son is growing. He is now rolling back and forth. He’s big for his age; not yet five months, the six months outfits are too small, and most nine months outfits are just right. He’s a happy baby. Smiles easily, laughs easily most of the time. He loves when we pay attention to him, talk and sing, and he likes to be tickled. He has the cutest laugh.

He is fascinated by his older brother; these days, if his brother sits with us during nursing, he stops eating and stares. His brother is wonderful with him: comes over when he cries, and makes him laugh, holds his hand in the car, wants to help with baby care.

So far, my baby has not had any real health problems; even when the rest of us got a cold, the worst he had was mild congestion. We have been lucky.

He has quite the appetite, though we are down to two feedings a night, which is much better than nursing every hour or two, which was the case during his first four months. He’s vaccinated on schedule, of course, like most kids in the United States. That means he is, at this point, protected against several dangerous diseases, though he has not yet completed any series of immunizations. 

I’m always worrying about my baby during flu season. He is too young to vaccinate against influenza – he can only get the vaccine at six months. He depends on the rest of us to keep the virus away from him. I and my family are vaccinated; but not everyone in the community is.

And with an older sibling and two working parents, he is not sequestered at home. I need to take him with me when I pick his brother up from school. I need to take him with me when we go shopping. I had to take him with me last week when I took his brother to get an eye exam, because I worried that my older son might have an eye problem (turned out he doesn’t). So he’s exposed to others, and influenza is a dangerous disease for little people like him. He is so young.

Last year I worried about my older son, because the influenza vaccine turned out to be less effective than usual, because the virus mutated. Not anyone’s fault: scientists made their best prediction, and the tricky influenza virus pulled a fast one and changed too late to change the vaccine. It still offered some protection against infection and more protection against complications, even if you got the disease, but not enough. It was concerning. Luckily, my son didn’t get influenza.

This year, we have the baby to worry about. And a recent article brought the danger home. Last week, the first week of November, a baby died in Santa Clara, CA.

The health department described the baby as “too young to be vaccinated.” I’m sure this baby was cute; babies are. I don’t know if the baby was happy or colicky, but I have no doubt the baby was deeply loved, and was growing and changing dramatically before the parents’ eyes, as babies do during those first months. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine the pain of the parents of this baby, or any other parents that lost a baby. My heart goes out to them. I am very, very sorry that they lost their little, irreplaceable person.

And I can’t help but worry when I hear about this, because my baby too is too young to have his own protection, and the influenza virus doesn’t care that he’s happy, and loved, and has a lot more growing to do. Nor does Mother Nature. Dying is as natural as being born, after all, and Mother Nature is indifferent about whether my baby wins over the germs or vice versa.

Public health officials, doctors and scientists, in contrast, have a bias. In the fight between germs and humans, they are team human all the way. So they want us to vaccinate against influenza, and give ourselves a better chance to win that fight – even if the protection they have available against influenza isn’t as powerful as the protection they provide us against other diseases we vaccinate against.

I am grateful for the protection against influenza the vaccine provides for my older son and the rest of our family. I wish it was stronger, but I appreciate what we have. And I can’t wait for my baby to be old enough to take advantage of that protection. I wish he could get the vaccine before six months.

I hope that if you can, you protect yourself. For your own sake, because influenza won’t hesitate to hurt you, if it can. But also for the sake of those who can’t be vaccinated,  temporarily like young babies or permanently for health reasons, and those who remain unprotected because of vaccine failure. I hope most of us don’t want to impose a disease on others anymore than we want to get sick ourselves, if it can be avoided.



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Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.