Vaccines for preventing influenza in healthy children

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Feb 1;2(2):CD004879. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004879.pub5.


Background: The consequences of influenza in children and adults are mainly absenteeism from school and work. However, the risk of complications is greatest in children and people over 65 years of age. This is an update of a review published in 2011. Future updates of this review will be made only when new trials or vaccines become available. Observational data included in previous versions of the review have been retained for historical reasons but have not been updated because of their lack of influence on the review conclusions.

Objectives: To assess the effects (efficacy, effectiveness, and harm) of vaccines against influenza in healthy children.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (the Cochrane Library 2016, Issue 12), which includes the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group Specialised Register, MEDLINE (1966 to 31 December 2016), Embase (1974 to 31 December 2016), WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP; 1 July 2017), and (1 July 2017).

Selection criteria: Randomised controlled trials comparing influenza vaccines with placebo or no intervention in naturally occurring influenza in healthy children under 16 years. Previous versions of this review included 19 cohort and 11 case-control studies. We are no longer updating the searches for these study designs but have retained the observational studies for historical purposes.

Data collection and analysis: Review authors independently assessed risk of bias and extracted data. We used GRADE to rate the certainty of evidence for the key outcomes of influenza, influenza-like illness (ILI), complications (hospitalisation, ear infection), and adverse events. Due to variation in control group risks for influenza and ILI, absolute effects are reported as the median control group risk, and numbers needed to vaccinate (NNVs) are reported accordingly. For other outcomes aggregate control group risks are used.

Main results: We included 41 clinical trials (> 200,000 children). Most of the studies were conducted in children over the age of two and compared live attenuated or inactivated vaccines with placebo or no vaccine. Studies were conducted over single influenza seasons in the USA, Western Europe, Russia, and Bangladesh between 1984 and 2013. Restricting analyses to studies at low risk of bias showed that influenza and otitis media were the only outcomes where the impact of bias was negligible. Variability in study design and reporting impeded meta-analysis of harms outcomes.Live attenuated vaccinesCompared with placebo or do nothing, live attenuated influenza vaccines probably reduce the risk of influenza infection in children aged 3 to 16 years from 18% to 4% (risk ratio (RR) 0.22, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.11 to 0.41; 7718 children; moderate-certainty evidence), and they may reduce ILI by a smaller degree, from 17% to 12% (RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.60 to 0.80; 124,606 children; low-certainty evidence). Seven children would need to be vaccinated to prevent one case of influenza, and 20 children would need to be vaccinated to prevent one child experiencing an ILI. Acute otitis media is probably similar following vaccine or placebo during seasonal influenza, but this result comes from a single study with particularly high rates of acute otitis media (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.95 to 1.01; moderate-certainty evidence). There was insufficient information available to determine the effect of vaccines on school absenteeism due to very low-certainty evidence from one study. Vaccinating children may lead to fewer parents taking time off work, although the CI includes no effect (RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.03; low-certainty evidence). Data on the most serious consequences of influenza complications leading to hospitalisation were not available. Data from four studies measuring fever following vaccination varied considerably, from 0.16% to 15% in children who had live vaccines, while in the placebo groups the proportions ranged from 0.71% to 22% (very low-certainty evidence). Data on nausea were not reported.Inactivated vaccinesCompared with placebo or no vaccination, inactivated vaccines reduce the risk of influenza in children aged 2 to 16 years from 30% to 11% (RR 0.36, 95% CI 0.28 to 0.48; 1628 children; high-certainty evidence), and they probably reduce ILI from 28% to 20% (RR 0.72, 95% CI 0.65 to 0.79; 19,044 children; moderate-certainty evidence). Five children would need to be vaccinated to prevent one case of influenza, and 12 children would need to be vaccinated to avoid one case of ILI. The risk of otitis media is probably similar between vaccinated children and unvaccinated children (31% versus 27%), although the CI does not exclude a meaningful increase in otitis media following vaccination (RR 1.15, 95% CI 0.95 to 1.40; 884 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). There was insufficient information available to determine the effect of vaccines on school absenteeism due to very low-certainty evidence from one study. We identified no data on parental working time lost, hospitalisation, fever, or nausea.We found limited evidence on secondary cases, requirement for treatment of lower respiratory tract disease, and drug prescriptions. One brand of monovalent pandemic vaccine was associated with a sudden loss of muscle tone triggered by the experience of an intense emotion (cataplexy) and a sleep disorder (narcolepsy) in children. Evidence of serious harms (such as febrile fits) was sparse.

Authors' conclusions: In children aged between 3 and 16 years, live influenza vaccines probably reduce influenza (moderate-certainty evidence) and may reduce ILI (low-certainty evidence) over a single influenza season. In this population inactivated vaccines also reduce influenza (high-certainty evidence) and may reduce ILI (low-certainty evidence). For both vaccine types, the absolute reduction in influenza and ILI varied considerably across the study populations, making it difficult to predict how these findings translate to different settings. We found very few randomised controlled trials in children under two years of age. Adverse event data were not well described in the available studies. Standardised approaches to the definition, ascertainment, and reporting of adverse events are needed. Identification of all global cases of potential harms is beyond the scope of this review.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Influenza Vaccines / therapeutic use*
  • Influenza, Human / prevention & control*
  • Numbers Needed To Treat
  • Otitis Media / diagnosis
  • Otitis Media / epidemiology
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Support as Topic
  • Vaccines, Attenuated / therapeutic use
  • Vaccines, Inactivated / therapeutic use


  • Influenza Vaccines
  • Vaccines, Attenuated
  • Vaccines, Inactivated