All children, not just those under 5 years of age, should get a flu shot, a federal advisory panel said Wednesday in a influential recommendation that could add 30 million youngsters to the ranks of Americans immunized against the flu every year.

An advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that now, all children ages 6 months to 18 years should receive the vaccine, extending a previous recommendation to immunize children up to 5 years.

"It is a big deal," said flu expert Dr. Roger Baxter, co-director of Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center in Oakland. "It's adding an incredibly large number of people to the recommendations."

The recommendation, which soon will be adopted by the CDC, could take effect as early as the 2008-09 flu season.

Public health officials said Wednesday that they hope the new recommendation will prevent the spread of flu from schoolchildren to adults, keeping youngsters in school and parents at work. About 35,000 Americans die every year from flu complications, many of them elderly.

The shots are not mandatory, but an official recommendation from the CDC means that more insurers will cover them. The recommendation also will increase the number of government-subsidized shots available to poor families.

Flu vaccine makers produced about 130 million doses for the 2007-08 flu season, and the CDC is confident that there will be enough vaccine to go around, said Dr. Tony Fiore, a CDC immunization expert. Previous immunization rates suggest that about 7 million of the 30 million newly eligible children will get a flu shot next year.

Children may receive the immunization by injection or a relatively new nasal spray. Children receiving their first immunization need two doses, with one annually thereafter.

Starting about 1940, Baxter said, federal officials began urging flu shots for people 65 and older as well as those who are chronically ill. As vaccine supplies increased, subsequent recommendations have added babies older than 6 months, young children and more recently, adults 50 and older. People of any age with diabetes, asthma or immune diseases, health workers and caregivers of people at high risk of flu complications also should get a flu shot.

Now, the CDC advisory panel favors vaccinating all schoolchildren, "not just to protect children but to abate epidemics because they begin at school," Baxter said.

Even before the recommendation, Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest HMO, recommended flu shots for everyone as long as the vaccine is available. This year, the HMO emphasized flu shots for schoolchildren, Baxter said.

Some parents may be concerned about thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative present in some adult flu vaccines that long has been rumored to cause autism. However, Baxter said that the preservative is safe and that extensive scientific research has not found any link between thimerosal and autism.

Since her daughter was hospitalized at age 3 with a serious flu-like illness known as respiratory syncytial virus, Jamie Lentzner of Foster City said she has vaccinated her 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

Both children now attend elementary school, and they have not had any serious respiratory infections since, said Lentzner, who runs a ceramic art business and contributes to the Silicon Valley Moms Blog.

"I think flu shots are more important now than when the kids were at home with me or in preschool," she said. "I'd rather have my kids protected."

MediaNews wire services contributed to this story. Reach Barbara Feder Ostrov at bfeder@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5064.

36,000

Estimated annual deaths attributed to the flu

25 to 50

Deaths per year of children ages 5 to 18

Source: CDC

ONLINE:

www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/acip/default.htm