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.
Teens and young adults have a tendency to believe they’re completely invincible. But their lifestyle – which often involves high levels of stress, inadequate amounts of sleep and close living quarters – can put them at an increased risk of certain infections such as flu, mumps, meningitis and HPV. As students return to class after winter break, they’re reunited with classmates, roommates, and professors who may have been exposed to infectious diseases during their travels to other states or other countries.
While it’s impossible to prevent every cough and sniffle, parents can help protect their kids by ensuring they’re up-to-date on all their recommended vaccines.
So what are all the vaccines that are recommended for teens and young adults?
And wouldn’t they be required for school anyway?
Vaccine requirements vary by state and don’t necessarily include all the vaccines that the CDC recommends. Therefore, as winter break come to an end, parents should review their students’ immunization records and arrange for them to get any missing shots before they return to class.
Here are a few of the diseases that students should be protected against.
Influenza is a dangerous viral infection that causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each year in the U.S., even among health people of all ages. For the best protection, the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months receive an annual influenza vaccine.
Unfortunately, while flu vaccination rates are typically the highest among children, rates tend to drop among teens and young adults. If your college student hasn’t already received their annual flu vaccine it’s not too late. Bring them to their healthcare provider or local pharmacy to get them protected before they return to campus. Although it can take up to two weeks to develop antibodies post-vaccination, flu season often extends well into Spring, so students will benefit from protection for many months to come.
Mumps may not be considered “common” in the U.S. thanks to a 99% decrease in mumps cases once mumps vaccination began in 1967, but there have been several mumps outbreaks on college campuses in the past year, and approximately 4,258 cases across 46 states and DC in 2016.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider that crowded environments, such a large classes and dormitory living can all contribute to the likelihood of outbreaks. Also, since mumps is spread primarily through saliva, coughing and sneezing, teen behaviors such as kissing or sharing plates, utensils, cups, lipstick or cigarettes, are all factors that can increase the likelihood of transmission. Read more…
Being a mom to Molly and Frankie is, without a doubt, the most rewarding role I’ve ever had. As we prepared to welcome another baby into our home this fall, I was reminded of just how fragile and precious a newborn can be.
In recent interviews with Fox News and CNN, I shared my concerns over the growing number of unvaccinated children in the area where we live. It frightens me to think that my baby may possibly be exposed to a dangerous and life-threatening disease before he is old enough to be vaccinated himself. It seems unfair that while I do everything in my power to protect this delicate new life, others are making a choice that puts my child at serious risk.
I have real reason to worry. When my second daughter Molly was just 10 months old she contracted whooping cough (also known as pertussis). As any parent can relate, it’s scary when your child gets sick, but it’s especially upsetting when you realize that your child is part of the largest outbreak of whooping cough in over fifty years. As an advocate for Every Child By Two’s Vaccinate Your Baby initiative, I was all too aware of the fact that whooping cough can be deadly for infants, and yet here we were facing that terrible diagnosis. We were incredibly fortunate that Molly fully recovered, but I’ll admit that I was completely rattled by the experience.
Fortunately, since that time, scientists have been closely examining the possible causes for the large number of whooping cough cases over the past few years and have made recommendations aimed at curbing the outbreaks. Part of the problem is that the immunity against the disease is wearing off so that people throughout the U.S. are less immune to whooping cough. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for infants to receive all five recommended doses of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine, followed by the booster shot of the adult version of the pertussis vaccine (Tdap) at 11 or 12 years old. It’s staggering to note that 83% of infants who are diagnosed with whooping cough got it from a family member, most often their own parents. Therefore, adults need to make sure they get a Tdap booster before a new baby arrives to protect themselves and to stop the spread of the disease to infants, who are most likely to become seriously ill from the disease.
Most important for newborns, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices took a good hard look at the pertussis research and concluded that we can best protect newborns by ensuring that pregnant women receive an adult Tdap booster in their last trimester of each pregnancy. By getting vaccinated during pregnancy, not only was I protected, but antibodies were transferred to my baby through the placenta, providing my baby with protection against pertussis before he could start getting DTaP vaccine at two months of age. So I followed my doctor’s advice and not only received the Tdap vaccine during my last trimester, but I also got a flu shot.
Just as I have the ability to protect my newborn from pertussis, I also have the ability to protect him and other members of my family from influenza. I’ve learned that due to changes in a pregnant woman’s immune system, heart and lungs, I was more prone to serious complications from the flu such as pre-term labor and delivery, hospitalization and even death. And, since children can’t be vaccinated against the flu before six months of age, everyone in our family must do all we can to protect our baby boy. With my child being born in the midst of flu season, I wanted to do everything I could to protect him from a disease that causes more than 20,000 children under the age of five to be hospitalized each year. I find it upsetting to learn that with all the medical resources available to us here in the U.S., last year’s flu season claimed the lives of 109 precious children.
I’ll admit that as a parent I’m concerned about the threat of vaccine-preventable diseases, especially as a result of people choosing not to vaccinate. But I refuse to stand by and watch as others put my children’s health at risk. By getting the flu and pertussis vaccines during my pregnancy, I felt empowered that I could do something positive to protect my child. And you can too.
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about vaccines. In addition, encourage your friends and family to utilize the resources provided by reputable organizations, such as Every Child By Two and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. And be sure to immunize yourself and your entire family.
Influenza has hit the United States early this year. I would be surprised if you’re not already aware of this, because there is so much discussion about it these days. With all the conversations there comes a variety of accurate and inaccurate information being spread. People are making statements about the flu shot, vaccine effectiveness, possible side effects, what constitutes “the flu”, how serious the flu is (or is not), and how many people have died. This morning, a flu related status update on our Vaccinate Your Baby Facebook page provided a perfect example of this. I read several statements that were completely untrue. Some people even stated that their doctors were informing them that the flu vaccine was not a good match to the strains that are circulating. That is just completely inaccurate.
However, as more than 100 comments continued to come in on that particular thread, I turned my attention to an important conference call initiated by the CDC. This call was scheduled to provide media with an accurate update on this year’s influenza season and it was a wonderful opportunity for people to ask questions of Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Joseph Bresee, M.D., Chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch, Influenza Division, CDC.
I’m sure we will be reading lots of coverage of this call over the next few days. However, since I know our readers are interested in keeping up-to-date on immunization related news, below you will find a few of the most prevalent data points released by the CDC today.
Flu Activity: Read more…
Yesterday I had the privilege of being introduced to Emily Lastinger. Her mother, Jen sounded much like any proud mother. She spoke of how Emily liked princesses and power rangers. She explained that Emily – like most 3 year olds – was both charming and challenging. And she spoke of how Emily was enamored by her two big brothers, and excited about her soon-to-be-born sister.
Unfortunately, I will never have the opportunity to meet Emily – except in pictures and videos, and in the memories that her family holds dear.
And Emily never had the opportunity to meet her sister.
Unfortunately, Emily died as a result of influenza in 2004.
As I listened to her mother share her story, it was difficult not to think about my own children. My now 10-year-old daughter, was the same age as Emily when she contracted the flu. My 10-year-old daughter who is so vivacious and full of life. Who is so inquisitive and full of wonder about the world. Who is caring and generous. Who makes me laugh, and smile, and cry, and worry. I just couldn’t image my life without her, let alone this world without her.
Everyday I count my blessings and I pray for patience and understanding. However, yesterday I struggled to understand how Emily’s life could be taken at such a young age. Then I realized what a gift Emily and her family have given us. In her three short years, Emily has managed to capture our attention. Her parents have since made it their mission to help prevent unnecessary deaths from this vaccine preventable illness. They are not only active participants in an organization called Families Fighting Flu, but they have taken action within their own state of Texas to ensure that schools across the state provide critical information about influenza vaccination by advocating for “Emily’s Law”.
As for Emily’s family, there will certainly always be a pain in their hearts as they are constantly reminded of their little angel in heaven. But I, for one, am grateful that they care enough about me and my children – and you and your children – to push aside their heartbreak just long enough to share Emily’s story. Their love and caring comes through in their story. And they face their pain with determination and courage as they attempt to prevent this horrible tragedy from repeating itself within other families.
As Jen concluded her story yesterday, she said these strong, yet simple words.
“So, my message for all parents today is very simple. Please vaccinate your children and yourselves this, and every flu season. It could save the life of someone you love.”
If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, think of Emily and do it for her today.
October marks the official start of influenza season. To highlight the dangers of the flu and the benefits of vaccination, I plan to incorporate a new feature called “Friday Flu Shots” throughout the course of the next few months.
Today’s Friday Flu Shot focuses on personal experiences.
Just last week I was chatting with a neighbor at the bus stop. She was talking about the health problems of her asthmatic son. When I casually asked if she had gotten him his flu shot yet, she matter-of-factly explained that her husband had the shot once before and then he got really sick with the flu. Somehow that “experience” has since kept all three of her children, as well as herself and her husband, from getting an influenza vaccine each year.
Now, I can’t say that I was surprised by her responses. Unfortunately, I’ve heard these similar objections before. As well as many others.
To be honest, if people are looking for a reason NOT to vaccinate for the flu, there are plenty of excuses to be used. Read more…
Every flu season is different and unpredictable, but each year influenza causes children to get sick, and can lead to hospitalizations and even deaths.
While influenza can be serious, vaccination is safe. Millions of children have received the flu vaccine without serious effects other than a day or two of a low grade fever, decreased activity, or discomfort at the injection site, for those who receive the injected vaccine, or a runny nose, for those who receive the nasal spray.
Yet, despite this body of evidence many people continue to have questions about the safety of influenza vaccines. The National Foundation for Infectious Disease conducted research this year that found that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of mothers surveyed said that reassurance that the vaccine is safe and carefully tested would make them more interested in vaccinating their children this year.
Here are the facts. Read more…