For kids, flu spray may be better than shots

When it comes to flu vaccines, a federal panel says a squirt in the nose is better than a shot in the arm for young children.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices,which provides preventive care recommendations to federal health officials, voted on Wednesday to recommend doctors use FluMist nasal spray -- instead of vaccine shots -- for preventing the flu in healthy young kids ages 2 through 8. A flu vaccine is now recommended for virtually everyone over 6 months old.

AstraZeneca's FluMist is the only spray vaccine on the market. It was first licensed in 2003 and is approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49. Unlike flu shots made from a killed virus, the nasal spray is made from a live but weakened flu virus.

Experts say the spray prompts a better immune response in children who may have never been infected with flu before, but there isn't a clear difference in adults. Some studies have found that kids within that age group are about half as likely to get the flu if they had the spray vaccine instead of a shot.

More than 100 children died during the 2013 flu season due to complications from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- three times the number of the prior flu season.

However, not all doctors are in agreement over recommending flu spray over shots. The American Academy of Pediatrics noted FluMist is more expensive and it's not appropriate for every child. Additionally, doctors have already ordered their vaccine doses for the fall flu season.

Dr. Michael Brady of Ohio State University also said the vote was based on studies that were done before flu vaccine was recommended for most children and vaccination rates were much lower. It's possible fresher data might not show such a difference, he said.

"We really feel you shouldn't place (doctors) and families in a situation where if they don't receive the live vaccine, they feel they're getting an inferior product. Because it may not be an inferior product," he said.

Health officials at Wednesday's meeting stressed that if doctors don't have FluMist in stock, flu shots are perfectly fine, since both are effective. FluMist costs about $23; shots range from about $8 to $22.

Of children ages 2 to 17 who are vaccinated for the flu, 44 percent get FluMist, according to AstraZeneca.

Kathleen Coelingh, senior director of U.S. medical affairs for AstraZeneca, said as a result of its growing popularity and the panel's decision, the company has decided to produce more spray for the coming flu season -- 18 million doses, up from 13 million last year.