A federal panel recommended Wednesday that all children over the age of 6 months should be vaccinated for influenza every year.
The recommendation, which is expected to be adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would call for an estimated 30 million more children to be vaccinated -- although current vaccination rates suggest that less than a quarter of them, about 7 million, would actually receive the shots.
The shots would not be mandatory, but the federal imprimatur would make physicians more likely to offer the vaccine to children.
"This new recommendation will help parents understand that all children can benefit from vaccination," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
In addition, CDC approval would make insurance coverage more likely and the flu vaccine would also be distributed through the government's Vaccines for Children program, which covers about 45% of the nation's youth.
Current recommendations call for vaccination of children between 6 months and 5 years old. The new recommendation raises the age range to 18.
Last year, 68 children died of the flu in 26 states monitored by the CDC; 39 of the children were between the ages of 5 and 17. So far this season, 22 have died.
Data presented at a two-day advisory committee meeting in Atlanta showed that vaccination among infants between 6 months and 2 years was about 75% effective in preventing influenza hospitalizations during the last two flu seasons in children who had received two shots. Among those who received only one dose of vaccine, however, the shots provided no statistically significant protection.
The committee emphasized that children under 9 who are receiving their first vaccination should therefore receive two doses. The vaccine does not provide complete protection because the flu virus mutates continually and the strains incorporated in the vaccine are selected more than a year in advance.
Because of such changes, this season's vaccine is a particularly poor match for circulating viruses -- but experts say it still provides some protection.
The committee urged that the recommendation be adopted for next winter's flu season. They noted, however, that most physicians have already ordered their vaccine supplies for next year, so it is unlikely the program will be fully implemented until the following year.