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On Call: Flu-Shot Safety

Q. My pediatrician says flu shots are safe for babies, but I've read otherwise. Would you give one to yours?

Absolutely. Influenza can be a serious illness, especially for infants  -- which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control recommend that all children under age 2 be immunized as early as possible each flu season (roughly September to March).

There has been some worry about thimerosal, a preservative used in most preparations of the flu shot. Thimerosal contains mercury, which can be poisonous in high concentrations. Many studies have been done looking for evidence that the small amounts of mercury in thimerosal can harm children, but none has been found. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, in 1999 the Public Health Services, the AAP, and vaccine manufacturers decided to reduce the amount of thimerosal in vaccines or remove it where possible. Right now, the flu shot is the only one of the many vaccines given to young children that has more than a trace amount of thimerosal, and it barely contains more than that.

While there's a preservative-free version of the flu shot on the market, it's not widely available yet. Research indicates that an inhaled version of the flu shot, FluMist  -- which doesn't contain thimerosal  -- is safe for babies and may be more effective than the shot. However, the findings are so new that the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet approved FluMist for children under the age of 5.So, what's a parent to do? This season, I'll take my baby, Liam, for a flu shot. If our pediatrician has the preservative-free version, great  -- I'll take it. But if she doesn't, he'll get the regular shot, no questions asked. I've seen just how sick the flu can make children, and I don't want that to happen to Liam.