Pediatric Flu Deaths During 2019-2020 Reach New High

June 4, 2021 – CDC reported 1 new seasonal flu-related death in a child that occurred during the 2019–2020 season last week, bringing the total number of flu deaths in kids reported to CDC for that season to 199. Prior to 2019-2020, the 2017-2018 season had the highest reported number of pediatric deaths, with 188 pediatric deaths reported. This tragic milestone underscores the importance of vaccinating children.

Among the 199 reported pediatric flu deaths:

  • 44% (87) occurred in children younger than 5 years old
    • 12 occurred in children younger than 6 months and thus too young to get a flu vaccine
  • 56% (112) deaths occurred in children 5-17 years old
  • Of the 183 pediatric deaths that occurred among children with known information on medical conditions, 78 (43%) had a pre-existing medical condition.
  • Only 22 percent of children eligible for influenza vaccination and for whom vaccination status was known were fully vaccinated against flu. This is consistent with data from previous seasons.

Most of the reported deaths last season (122) were associated with influenza B virus infections. The 2019-2020 season was heavily influenza B virus predominant during most of the season, but there was a surge of influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses that occurred later in the season, before the COVID-19 pandemic began and influenza virus circulation dropped quickly. While influenza A(H3N2) viruses are often associated with more severe illness in older people, last season is a reminder that influenza B viruses can also be associated with serious illness and death, especially in children.

CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccine, especially children who are younger than 5 years of age or children of any age who have a high risk medical condition, because they are more likely to develop serious flu complications that can lead to hospitalization and death. Getting vaccinated has been shown to reduce flu illnesses, doctor’s visits, missed school days, and reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalization and death in children.

Reporting for flu deaths in children has been nationally notifiable since 2004 but can lag. The most recent reported death during 2019-2020 happened during the week ending January 11, 2020. Since 2004, flu-related deaths in children reported to CDC during regular flu seasons have ranged from 37 to 199 deaths.

While any death in a child from a vaccine preventable illness is a tragedy, the number of pediatric flu deaths reported to CDC each season is likely an undercount. Even though the reported number of flu-related deaths in children during the 2019-20 flu season was 199, CDC estimates the actual number of flu-related deaths in children that season was 434 when accounting for rates of influenza testing among children and deaths outside of a hospital that may be even less likely to be recognized as flu.

Children should be vaccinated every flu season for the best protection against flu. For children who will need two doses of flu vaccine, the first dose should be given as early in the season as possible. For other children, it is good practice to get them vaccinated by the end of October. However, getting vaccinated later can still be protective as flu viruses may continue to circulate.

In addition to getting a flu shot, children and caregivers of young children should take everyday preventive actions CDC recommends for everyone, including covering coughs, washing hands often, and avoiding people who are sick.