At 6:30 AM, I kissed my 14-week-old son Joe on the forehead and headed off to work at the hospital. By 3 PM I was back in bed with a hacking cough and a fever. I had influenza.
As a doctor training in infectious diseases, I knew that the flu can be dangerous in vulnerable populations like little babies. I had visions of Joe being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, as I swallowed a pill of oseltamivir (brand name “Tamiflu”) and shivered under the covers.
Should I also give my little boy Tamiflu to prevent him from getting sick? The answer should be clear to an infectious disease physician-in-training, right?
I felt competing instincts. Paternal: to “do something” to prevent Joe from getting the flu. Medical: “do nothing,” as the rampant overuse of antibiotics in children has had negative consequences and the same might be true for antivirals.
As I researched the question further, I learned that the decision to give prophylactic Tamiflu is anything but simple.
Close contacts of people with the flu (including babies) can receive Tamiflu if they are at high risk for influenza complications. One Greek study of 13 newborns found that the drug was safe but did not address its effectiveness. Moreover, the number of babies who would need to receive Tamiflu to prevent one serious case of influenza is unknown.
Another study found that Tamiflu protected against the spread of the influenza in families when the initial household case was treated. However, that study did not include babies under the age of one. In addition, that study was financed by the manufacturer, a relationship that some (myself included) have found to be problematic.
Over the past several years, controversy has been brewing regarding a lack of transparency in clinical trials of Tamiflu. Most recently, the journalist Jeanne Lenzer called attention to potential financial conflicts of interest at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with respect to influenza drug treatment recommendations.
Especially concerning was a $174,800 grant that the manufacturer provided to the non-profit CDC Foundation to support qualitative research into flu prevention and treatment messaging. For anyone familiar with the marketing practices of the pharmaceutical industry, this sounded like a potentially large return on a small investment.
I believe that Jeanne Lenzer is correct in arguing that conflicts of interest between CDC and the pharmaceutical industry deserve attention. That said, we should also be mindful of the larger context. Public health in America is grossly underfunded (CDC’s operating budget is a paltry $11.5 billion dollars per year, compared to America’s $2.9 trillion in health care expenditures). A lack of adequate public health funding and regulation is likely why these relationships with industry exist. The Tamiflu controversy demonstrates that there needs to be stronger federal oversight of the relationships between industry and the government.
Full disclaimer: I am not an unbiased observer. From 2012 to 2014, I trained at CDC in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (“disease detectives”) program. I did not work in CDC’s influenza division, however. In addition, I have never received funding from the pharmaceutical industry.
So what to do for little Joe? I reached out to several physician acquaintances. Some suggested that we give the Tamiflu prophylactically, while others advised to wait and see if he developed a fever. Given the risks versus potential benefits, we somewhat ironically and reluctantly elected to give him the medication.
Did we make the right choice? It’s not easy to say. My son tolerated the first dose of Tamiflu and vomited the second. He played happily with his stuffed animals (which he was also doing before he started taking the drug) throughout my illness and never got sick.
What I knew all along, and want to make sure other parents know, is to get the flu shot each year. Usually it’s effective. If you do get influenza, minimize contact with others. Wash your hands. Drugs like Tamiflu used prophylactically in babies may or may not help. If I had to do it over again, I would not give him the medication.
The more I learn about the practice of medicine and the practice of parenting, the more I realize that we have to learn to live with uncertainty. Parents will worry, and doctor-parents are not immune from fretting. What’s important is to enjoy your children; they grow up quickly. And they usually turn out fine, even if they do come down with the flu once or twice along the way.
Philip Lederer is an Infectious Disease fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a former Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). His views do not represent any of those organizations.