In December, 2009 my sister Liza died of influenza.
She was previously healthy and only 49 years old. She sought medical care early. She was cared for at a good hospital in a major city. She had no other infections. And she was unvaccinated.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. And yet, I’m a pediatric intensive care physician.
As a clinician, it’s easy for me to trace out the clinical course of Liza’s illness. The physiology of organ failure, mechanical ventilation and critical illness are familiar to me in the same way that your daily work is to you. It’s the human side that I still haven’t come to terms with. The part where you watch your sister die over the course of three long weeks while you stand helpless. The part where you listen to a physician tell your family that they are out of options. The part where you know that they are right and you realize that influenza is sometimes too much to handle, even with all our modern medicine.
That part is much harder to process.
Her symptoms started with fever, but progressed to vomiting after a few days. She went to the urgent care clinic twice over the course of a few days before ending up in the emergency department of the local hospital. She had begun to experience difficulty breathing, and the emergency physician noted that the oxygen saturation in her blood was very low. They put her on oxygen, and an x-ray revealed that both her lungs were filled with fluid. A condition that led to her being diagnosed with pneumonia.
You see, your lungs are supposed to have air in them. They should look like sponges. Pneumonia is just the term we physicians use to describe the situation when fluid, infection, and inflammation fill those little air spaces in the sponge.
Pneumonia can come from viruses or bacteria. If your pneumonia is caused by a bacteria, you can get antibiotics to kill the bacteria. However, if your pneumonia is caused by a virus, like influenza, there is not much we can do but ride it out and wait for your own immune system to clear it. The simple fact is that we just don’t have very good medications for viruses. Tamiflu can be prescribed and it might slow down the virus, but it doesn’t kill it or stop it.
So, they did the only thing they really could do, and started her on IV Tamiflu. She was moved to the intensive care unit downtown, and within the next few hours she struggled to breathe and her oxygen saturations continued to fall. She had to be placed on a ventilator, and the hope was that her lungs would recover after a few days. After all, it was ‘just the flu’.
We never did get to speak with her again.
In the final weeks of NFL play, as the Green Bay Packers competed against the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers took on the New England Patriots, rumors circulated that several NFL players may have had the flu.
Some sources say the players had fallen ill with a “flu-like bug”, though it’s unclear what that’s supposed to mean. It seems likely that a doctor’s exam, along with a flu test, could confirm, with relative certainty, whether these players were in fact suffering from influenza.
Some sources reported that the players have had the “stomach flu”, which is confusing since there is really no such thing as a “stomach flu“. With flu, some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults. It is much more likely that these symptoms alone suggest gastrointestinal issues that are often referred to as stomach bugs, which again, should not be confused with influenza.
Then there’s the reference to the “24-hour flu” in a report from ESPN Staff Writer, Jeremy Fowler. The article leads with a statement that up to 15 people in the Pittsburgh Steelers facility suffered a setback from a “24-hour flu bug”. To clarify, the flu is never a 24 hour ordeal. Rather, the flu can last as long as 5-10 days.
In an interview on NFL.com, we hear sportscaster Charley Casserly and former general manager of the NFL’s Washington Redskins saying,
“Some of the best games I had players play in was when they were ill. They had the flu. Hey, I don’t know what it is, but the flu, the flu could be good. It could be good for those players. A lot of them play well.”
I’m guessing Casserly doesn’t know much about the flu. He has probably never had it himself or he wouldn’t suggest that players could play well while suffering with it.
This varied media coverage of these high-profile athletes and their suspected illnesses is just another example of how the public continues to be misinformed about the flu.
The flu is a serious illness, that kills and hospitalizes thousands of people in the U.S. each year. Yet the majority of people I talk to, day after day, are unfamiliar with flu symptoms and the dangers of flu.
Yesterday I had dinner with a good friend – a friend who was only in town because she had traveled four hours to bring her college-aged son back to campus after he had been home suffering with the flu for over a week. She explained that she had never had the flu, nor had either of her two college-aged children. Therefore, she had never even considered the need for a flu vaccine. She then went on to explain that she never knew how bad it could be, until she saw her son lying in bed for days. He was very ill and lost 10 pounds in one week. As he describes it, “It was the most awful thing and I’ve never been that sick ever.” Read more…
This guest post by Serese Marotta, Chief Operating Officer of Families Fighting Flu, is part of the CDC Flu Blog-A-Thon held in honor of National Influenza Vaccination Week.
As parents, we do everything we can to protect our children. We buckle them into their car seats, make them wear their bike helmets, hold their hand while crossing the street, and even get them their recommended childhood vaccinations. But what about getting our kids the flu vaccine?
Sadly, only about 42% of adults and 60% of children received their annual flu vaccine last season.
These statistics may not mean much to you, unless you or a loved one have had a personal experience with the flu. But they haunt me every day. As a mother who lost her healthy, five-year-old son, Joseph, during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, I want to do everything I can to ensure no other child dies from flu.
Despite what many people may believe, influenza is not like the common cold. Influenza is a very serious and highly contagious disease that tends to develop quickly, especially in children. Influenza can also lead to hospitalization or death, even in otherwise healthy individuals. Every year in the U.S., approximately 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized, and on average, 100 children die each year from flu infection and its complications. According to the CDC, 80 to 90 percent of pediatric flu deaths over the past few years have been in unvaccinated children, many of whom were otherwise healthy.
This is why I am writing this article and telling Joseph’s story again, in hopes that it will save someone else from losing a loved one to flu.
As a mother, I have always tried my best to protect my kids, including getting them vaccinated against the flu every year. When my son Joseph was in kindergarten, he received his annual flu vaccine on September 26, 2009. Unfortunately, the H1N1 flu strain was just developing, and it was not included in the seasonal vaccine that year. On October 9th he threw up a few times and became increasingly lethargic. Our pediatrician suggested we take him to the local urgent care and upon arrival, they found his blood oxygen level to be very low. They immediately transported him to the local children’s hospital where a rapid flu test came back negative and he was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia.
Several days into his hospital stay, the doctors informed us that Joseph’s culture was growing influenza, which was likely H1N1, but not to worry—it was “just the flu”.
A flu vaccine is recommended for every one age 6 months and older because preventing the flu is better than suffering with it. The real danger of flu is not just in the fever, cough, congestion, extreme fatigue and muscle aches that can cause people to be ill for a week or more, it’s the fact that influenza causes thousands of hospitalizations and deaths each year.
Getting a flu shot not only helps to protect us from getting the flu ourselves, but it means we are less likely to spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable to complications from the flu. This includes young children, pregnant women, infants too young to be vaccinated, older individuals, and people with weakened immune systems. In fact, children account for about 20,000 hospitalizations and roughly 100 deaths from influenza each year.
Unfortunately, this year we are hearing that some parents are opting to skip the flu vaccine for their children simply because the nasal flu mist – also known as the live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) – is no longer recommended or available this season.
As a mother, I know it can be difficult to deal with children who have anxiety over shots and needles, and no parent likes to see their children in pain. However, when parents skip shots for their children, they are more likely to have to watch their children suffer with the flu, which is much more dangerous than any short-lived anxiety over getting a needle in the arm. In some cases, the flu can be devastating and even fatal, especially for young children.
Consider Gianna’s story.
Her mother, father and brother were all vaccinated in 2015. But by January, they still hadn’t gotten around to getting two and a half-year old Gianna vaccinated. She fell sick on January 8th, and by January 10th she had died from influenza.
With Gianna, like we see with many children, everything happened so fast. She started feeling ill at daycare. The next morning her pediatrician confirmed that she had the H3N2 influenza virus and prescribed antivirals. But the infection spread quickly and the antivirals didn’t even have time to kick in.
Later that evening, Gianna called out to her mother as she lay beside her in bed. It would be the last time she would hear Gianna’ voice. Read more…
This blog post initially appeared as part of the NFID inaugural 2015 National Influenza Immunization Week (NIVW) Blog Relay.
As a communications specialist and mother of five, I’m extremely passionate about immunization education and the power of social networks. Everything that I do as the social media manager for Every Child By Two (ECBT) is done in support of their goal to provide people with evidence-based information about vaccines so that they can make well-informed immunization decisions for themselves and their family.
Since Every Child By Two’s social media platforms (including the Vaccinate Your Family Facebookpage, @EveryChildBy2 and @ShotofPrev Twitter accounts, and Shot of Prevention blog) reach more than 7 million followers, we are committed to educating the public about a broad array of issues. This includes news about outbreaks of preventable diseases, new vaccine developments and recommendations, vaccine safety and efficacy studies, and steps our readers can take to advocate for strong, science-based immunization policies.
However, each year-right around this time of the season-we are typically focused on one important issue: influenza (flu).
It’s been five years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a universal flu vaccine recommendation in which they recommended everyone six months of age and older should get an annual flu vaccine.
Less than half of the US population received flu vaccine in the past season…clearly, we still have work to do.
While vaccination rates continue to rise each year, common flu vaccine myths that keep people from vaccinating persist and are often shared among social media networks. Therefore, one of the most important things we can do to prevent the spread of flu (besides getting vaccinated, of course) is to use our own social media influence to counter the prolific misinformation and refer people to reputable immunization resources.
There are several ways that Every Child By Two is working to do this:
Highlighting the Dangers of Flu
With the introduction of our new Vaccinate Your Family program, families can now go to ECBT’s social media platforms, or the new Vaccinate Your Family website, to obtain information about influenza vaccines recommended for pregnant women, children, adolescents, and adults.
Studies show that people are more motivated to protect themselves from a vaccine-preventable disease when they have a clear understanding of the risks of the disease, which is why the new website houses scientifically-accurate information on influenza vaccines for each stage of life; details about the burden of influenza; and personal stories from those who have been affected by flu.
By combining compelling disease statistics with personal stories, we have been able to create powerful infographics and blog posts that are being shared in record numbers.
For instance, earlier this week, our Shot of Prevention blog posted 147 Kids Died From Flu Last Year. My Scarlet Was One of Them, in which
Rebecca Hendricks explains how little she knew about flu before her precious daughter
Scarlet died last season. Her honesty and disbelief over the dangers of the flu, along with her resolve to prevent further tragedy by encouraging others to get vaccinated, has clearly resonated with people. In just a few short days more than half a million people saw her Facebook post and thousands continue to share it daily. In January this year, Joe Lastinger’s story, Our Life Without Emily: Flu, Fear, Guilt and Regret,was similarly popular among social networks.
These personal stories, as well Luke’s story of a teen athlete who spent a month hospitalized due to influenza, are all part of a bigger strategy to elevate the message that flu is dangerous, and sometimes even deadly.
In these examples, the power of the personal story is helping us to reach new audiences with an important message. However, the same tactic is often used on social media to perpetuate inaccurate flu vaccine myths. This is why we must consistently accompany these personal stories with evidence-based information and create a conversation about the safety and benefits of flu vaccination.
Educating People About the Benefits of Flu Vaccines
Every Child By Two’s social media engagement allows us to interact with people in real time and address questions and concerns.
During the NFID inaugural 2015 National Influenza Immunization Week (NIVW) Blog Relay, guest bloggers, including several prominent medical professionals, answered common questions like “Can a flu vaccine give you the flu?”, “Do I need a flu vaccine each year?”, and “Should pregnant women be vaccinated against flu?” These medical professionals are experts on the subject of immunizations. However, they do not have the physical capacity to speak to every person who has questions and concerns. This is why we ask that you join us in elevating accurate evidence-based information across your own social networks.
Not only can we work together to address concerns quickly, but we can also refer them to reputable sources for more information and suggest they continue the conversation with their healthcare professional.
Share all the informative posts from the NFID inaugural 2015 National Influenza Immunization Week (NIVW) Blog Relay. Subscribe to our Shot of Prevention blog, follow Vaccinate Your Family on Facebook, and @ShotofPrev on Twitter.
Together we can elevate our voices in support of flu vaccination.
Thank you to NFID for including us in their NIVW Blog Relay. Follow NFID on Twitter (@nfidvaccines) using the hashtags #FightFlu and #NIVW, like NFID on Facebook, join the NFID Linkedin Group, and subscribe to NFID Updates.
I never imagined that jumping on Facebook to catch up with friends would have me reliving the worst day of my life.
My five-year old daughter, Scarlet Anne Taylor, died as a result of influenza last season.
She was the first child out of 147 who would die from flu in the 2014-2015 season. She passed away on December 19, 2014, in Tacoma, WA, just 48 hours after the onset of symptoms and within 4 hours of when she arrived at the hospital.
It all happened so quickly that I still struggle with the reality of it all. One day she was sent home from school with a fever, the next day she was pronounced dead before we even knew the cause. It wasn’t until I received a call from the medical examiner a week and a half later that I would come to learn that my daughter had died from influenza (H3N2).
Last week marked the official end of the 2014-2015 flu season. Sadly, the season was marked by 146 pediatric deaths. Of those 146 children, we know the vaccination status of 123 of them – 14 were ineligible for vaccination due to age, 15 were vaccinated, and 94 were unvaccinated. As we begin the 2015-2016 season, we urge every one to get a flu vaccine. No matter what your age, the flu can be dangerous and even deadly. A flu vaccine is your best defense.
(Sadly, another death was reported to the CDC following this post, which brought the total number of children who died in the 2014-2015 season to 147.)
To be completely honest, prior to Scarlet’s death I was not aware of the dangers of the flu, the symptoms of the flu, or the fact that influenza could be deadly to an otherwise healthy child. I thought the flu shot was a way for pharmaceutical companies to make money. I thought the vaccine was more likely to give you the flu than prevent it. I thought the vaccine wasn’t necessary because everyone who got the flu got over it. I thought it was no big deal.
To say I was mistaken is an understatement.
In the months since Scarlet’s death I can’t help but wish I had known more. If only I had identified her symptoms as influenza sooner. If only I had known how dangerous the flu could be. If only I had gotten my family vaccinated. Is it possible that I could have done something that may have saved her life?
As I approach the anniversary of Scarlet’s death, I think of the sweet, beautiful and vibrant child that once graced this earth. Only a parent understands the absolute love you have for your child and the monumental desire that roars like an open fire inside you to protect them at all costs.
I still feel her presence everywhere, but mourn the fact that I can no longer see her. Touch her. Or protect her.
Whatever you imagine it might be like to have your child die, multiply that a zillion times, and you’re still not even close. The medical examiner should have written a death certificate for me as well, because when Scarlet died, a part of me died too.
I almost feel like less of a mom now. Or just not entirely whole anymore. Incomplete.
The shape of my family has changed. It’s been almost a year since Scarlet left us and yet I still find myself questioning how I’m supposed to respond when people ask me how many children I have. I have 3 kids now. But I had four.
Just a few weeks ago, we went to a restaurant and I ordered four kid’s meals. Then it suddenly occurred to me… Read more…
At the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases (NFID) 2015 Annual Influenza/Pneumococcal News Conference held in Washington, DC last week, expert panelists spoke about the burden of influenza (flu) in the US and the importance of annual flu vaccination as the best way to protect yourself and your family.
Special thanks to Daniel B. Jernigan, MD, MPH, Director of the Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for sharing his perspective on the importance of annual flu vaccination for all people 6 months of age and older.
How serious is the flu?
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that can cause mild to severe illness. Flu seasons can vary in severity depending on what viruses are circulating, but the flu is much more than a nuisance or common cold. Every flu season, millions of people get sick, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized…
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