With children all across New Jersey headed back to school this week, a national medical group is encouraging all kids to get the annual flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is encouraging children from 6 months old and up to get the vaccine, especially in light of last year being one of the most severe flu seasons in recent memory.

"The flu virus is common — and unpredictable. It can cause serious complications even in healthy children," Dr. Flor M. Munoz said in a statement from the academy. "Being immunized reduces the risk of a child being hospitalized due to flu."

The statement from the academy said in the most recent flu season 179 children died of "influenza-associated deaths," with thousands more hospitalized. Around 80 percent of those children did not receive the vaccine, according to the academy.

There were more than 14,000 confirmed cases of the flu in New Jersey alone this past year. Dr. Robert Pedowitz told the Townsquare News Network at the time that the high number showed the importance of vaccinations. Pedowitz said that while there are questions about the effectiveness of any year's vaccine given the multiple strains of the virus, it is still better to be vaccinated than not.

"The vaccine, though it's correctly treating this strain, or preventing the strain from causing the flu in individuals who get the vaccine, it may not be as effective this particular year," he said in 2017. "I think the public should know it's not that the flu shot isn't working, it's that sometimes the flu shot doesn't work as well as we would like it to be working."

While there is a nasal spray version of the vaccine available, the academy suggests the injectable version of the vaccine, which has proven more effective. Children with egg allergies can get the vaccine, as can pregnant women.

The academy encourages health care personnel to get the vaccine as well. The vaccine being used this year includes a new strain of influenza A and one new strain of influenza B.

"The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies and is affected by factors such as the child's age, health status, vaccination history and the strain of influenza circulating in a community," Dr. Henry Bernstein said in the academy statement. "We urge parents to talk with their pediatricians now to avoid any delay in getting their children vaccinated."

Getting children vaccinated has been a hot-button topic in New Jersey in recent months. A hearing in Trenton for legislation that would make it harder for parents to get a religious exemption for mandatory vaccinations was attended by more than 300 people. The bill passed in the committee but has not been voted on yet by the full assembly or the senate.

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