updated 10/4/2006 2:03:02 PM ET 2006-10-04T18:03:02

Only about half of young children who are supposed to get annual flu shots have been doing so, a percentage that drops to less than a third when it comes to children with chronic medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.

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And, with medical experts expanding the age range of children who should be vaccinated this year, the percentage who fail to comply with the recommendations is likely to go up. Health officials now say children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years should get flu shots; previously the range was 6 months to 2 years.

Many parents may not be aware of the change.

Health officials with the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases say Americans don’t take flu seriously enough. This year, a vaccine shortage won’t be a credible excuse. More than 100 million doses of vaccine will be available — the most ever.

“Vaccine that remains in the refrigerator cannot prevent influenza,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University.

The stakes are high when it comes to the flu, said officials who attended a press conference designed to raise awareness of flu shot recommendations. The flu kills about 36,000 people each year and puts more than 200,000 others in the hospital. Most of the deaths and serious cases are among the elderly.

Still, for children between the ages of 2 and 5, there is a higher rate of clinic and emergency room visits due to flu-related illness than with other illnesses.

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