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3 Things I’ve Learned Since Losing My Son to Flu

October 18, 2017 5 comments
By Serese Marotta, Chief Operating Officer, Families Fighting Flu

 

JoJo as Spiderman copy

Today is a hard day for me – it’s been eight years since I lost my five-year-old son, Joseph, to the flu.

I’m not the same person I was eight years ago. Today, I see things through a different lens as a bereaved parent. I am more compassionate, more empathic, and (generally) more understanding and patient. Losing a child is devastating, but I feel it’s my responsibility to pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned through this personal tragedy.

So here’s what I want every parent to know:

1.  Every parent wants what’s best for their children.

I’ve come to realize that vaccination is a sensitive issue for many people. Some parents believe in vaccination, while others do not. But what we all agree on is that our decisions are motivated by our desire to protect our children.

Whether it’s a post on social media, or a televised interview on the news, we often witness a difference of opinions regarding the risks and benefits of vaccines.  However, we all make the choices we do with the information we have because we want to do what we THINK is best for our children. The disconnect occurs when we don’t agree on the validity of the information that’s available to us.

It’s not really the people that are divided, it’s actually the incorrect information on vaccines that we have allowed to divide us.

As parents, we are so overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information out there, that sometimes it’s difficult to determine what’s true and what’s false. That’s why when I have conversations with people who are hesitant, or even opposed to vaccines, I find it’s best to listen to their concerns and start a mutually respectful dialogue. Attacking one another won’t help. We need to combat vaccine misinformation by providing the correct information. I don’t want a single parent to risk their child’s life, or their own, simply because they didn’t have the correct information about vaccines.

So here’s what I know for sure; across the globe, millions of children have died due to infectious diseases and continue to do so. Sadly, most of these deaths could be prevented with vaccines.  My son’s death certificate states “complications of H1N1”. I know for a fact that my child died from influenza. I also know, based on the available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that 1,472 children have died from influenza in the United States since 2004. And I know that the flu vaccine has been safely administered in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

How do I know this? Because I made sure I got the facts and I trust the science.

2. Flu vaccines save lives.

We have vaccines for a reason. Vaccines are not created for common, non-life-threatening ailments. The fact that there is even a flu vaccine should be enough to indicate the dangers of flu. Before Joseph died, I never would have thought in a million years that flu was a threat to my healthy child. I have always vaccinated myself and my children, including for flu. Joseph passed away due to H1N1 flu, which was not included in the seasonal vaccine in 2009. The H1N1 vaccine did not become available in our community until two weeks after Joseph passed away. I do believe that if he had been vaccinated for H1N1, Joseph would likely still be here today.

Flu does not discriminate – it does not care if you’re young or old, rich or poor, healthy or immunocompromised. It’s important for people to know that flu can be a serious, even deadly, disease for anyone. Before Joseph died I was more scared of him getting hit by a car or kidnapped by a stranger. Death from flu was not even on my radar. Now I know more about flu than I ever wanted to.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, 20 to 50 million people lost their lives. Every year in the U.S., upwards of 56,000 people lose their lives due to flu, including approximately 100 children. As parents, we do everything we can to keep our children safe. So why wouldn’t we protect them from the flu, too?  The flu can kill even a healthy individual. But those who are vaccinated are much less likely to die from flu.

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3.  Grief is not a linear process.

As a bereaved parent, my lessons would not be complete if I didn’t address grief. As bereaved parents, we often hear “you’re so strong” and “I don’t know how you do it”.

The simple answer is we weren’t given a choice. 

One of the important things I’d like people to know about grief is that it’s not a linear process. There are days when I feel gracious, like I can accept Joseph’s loss, move on, and even work towards saving other children from the same fate. But then there are days when I feel like life is just unfair. Grief is a spiral and you can be anywhere on that spiral on any given day. There is no right way to grieve. For those of you that are a bereaved parent, be gentle with yourself and reach out to others for help and support. The Compassionate Friends was very helpful to me after Joseph’s death. And for those of you that know a bereaved parent, reach out to them! Speak their child’s name in conversation, ask how they are – even if it’s years after the loss. Our biggest fear is that our child will be forgotten by others.

So today, I am choosing to remember Joseph as a happy five-year-old in his Spiderman costume, zooming around our house, just happy to be alive and free. Eight years later, do I think about what Joseph would look like, how tall would he be, what sports would he be playing? Of course. But I accept that my responsibility is to educate others about the dangers of flu and the importance of annual flu vaccinations for everyone six months and older. If I, along with all the other bereaved parents who lost children to flu, don’t continue to tell our stories, then we will be doing a disservice to others.

Let our stories be YOUR lessons. 

Because of my experiences, and those of many other families who have lost loved ones to flu, you can now learn how dangerous flu can be without having to suffer a similar tragedy. I am thankful that our children’s stories could potentially save your child’s life. So please share Joseph’s story, and all the family stories available on the Families Fighting Flu website, with your friends, neighbors and loved ones.

animated-fight-flu-arm-flexAnd please, remember to get your flu vaccine this year, not only to protect yourself, but also to protect your loved ones and your community. By doing so, you may just save a life and it may even be the life of your own child.   

Of course, if you have questions or concerns that are keeping you from getting your family vaccinated, talk to your healthcare provider or check out the online resources from Families Fighting Flu or the CDC.

You may also join the Seasonal Flu Twitter Chat featuring @CDCFlu@famfightflu and @shotofprev on Twitter on October 26th.

101 Empty Chairs

June 23, 2017 1 comment

By Serese Marotta, Chief Operating Officer, Families Fighting Flu

Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that the 2016/2017 flu season has now claimed the lives of more than 100 children. 101 to be exact.  This statistic is hauntingly familiar – three of the past five flu seasons also claimed the lives of more than 100 children.

101 Pediatric Flu Deaths

Sometimes we forget what these numbers really mean.

It means that 101 families had to bury their beloved children; 101 families have to listen to the deafening sound of silence left by their lost loved ones; and 101 families now have empty chairs at their dinner tables every night.

I paint this picture because I know how these families feel. They’re probably thinking the same thing I did after my son died from the flu – how did this happen and what could I have done to prevent it? 

Unfortunately, unless flu has personally touched your family like it has mine, chances are you’re not all that worried about flu.  You may even think it’s just a bad cold. Well, as the mother of a child who lost her five-year old son to flu, I’m here to tell you, “Not so“.

According to the CDC, flu kills more Americans every year – up to 56,000 people – than any other vaccine-preventable disease.  Since 2004, when the CDC started reporting pediatric flu deaths, 1,466 children – many of whom were otherwise healthy – have lost their lives to flu.

Flu is that infectious disease that seems to fly under the radar. While everyone is focused on the latest outbreak of measles, mumps, pertussis or meningitis, flu is that one disease that we know we will have an outbreak of each and every year.  As prevalent as flu is, it still manages to creep up like a quiet thief in the night, stealing our loved ones right out from under our noses.  And yet when it does, we wonder why we never saw it coming.  Flu has killed millions of people worldwide – and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

So what can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from influenza each year?  Annual vaccination.

Studies show that flu vaccination can reduce the likelihood of death and hospitalization from flu in people of all ages.  Yet, less than half of Americans get their annual flu vaccine.   Read more…

The 60/40 Factor and This Year’s Flu Season: It’s Not Over Yet

March 10, 2017 4 comments

It’s March, and while we may be anxious for the arrival of spring, what we’ve seen instead is a whole lot of people sick with flu.  Surveillance data shows that while the flu may have peaked in some areas of the country, flu activity remains elevated throughout most of the U.S.  Since flu season typically extends into April and May, now is the time to remain vigilant and get vaccinated if that is still something you haven’t managed to do.

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Flu surveillance reports indicate that the flu strains that make up this year’s vaccine are a good match to those circulating across the U.S.  The most dominant strain has been the influenza A (H3N2) strain, and the estimated effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing illness caused by that strain has been 43%. However, we’re also seeing cases of influenza B virus, and the vaccine’s estimated effectiveness against that strain is 73%. This amounts to an overall vaccine protection of about 48%.

While some may question, “Why get a flu shot if it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu?”, the answer is simple. 48% protection is much better than none.

When a vaccinated individual is exposed to flu, they are about half as likely to have to go to the doctor, be hospitalized or even die from the flu as compared to their unvaccinated counterpart.

Sure, the flu vaccine isn’t perfect.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting.  

Consider the fact that most everyone wears a seat belt when driving in a car, and yet they’ve only been shown to reduce vehicular injury and death by about 50%.  So if you wouldn’t drive your car without wearing a seatbelt, why would you want to skip a flu shot?

Another reason people often use to explain why they haven’t gotten a flu vaccine is because they’ve never had the flu and they don’t consider it to be dangerous.

The 60/40 factor tells us otherwise.

40:  This is the number of children who’ve died from the flu so far this season.  

While no parent every imagines that their child will die from a preventable disease, we know that 40 children across the nation have died from flu so far this season. And sadly, the season is not over yet.  (Update: as of March 13th the number of pediatric deaths has risen to 48). Most years the average is closer to 100 pediatric flu deaths and as high as 49,000 flu-related deaths among adults.

Since pediatric flu deaths must be reported, as flu112315opposed to adult flu deaths, we tend to see news reports throughout the flu season, such as these: 

While we may never know the specifics of each case, what we do know is that the flu is completely unpredictable.  From season to season, we don’t always know exactly which strain will be most prevalent, which will be most dangerous, and who will suffer, be hospitalized or even die as a result of the flu.

The 60/40 factor in regards to pediatric flu deaths: In a previous season, 60% of pediatric deaths occurred among children who were in a high risk category, while 40% had no chronic health problems.

Read more…

A Mother’s Plea: Don’t Let Flu Steal Your Healthy Child

December 8, 2016 Leave a comment

CDC Flu Blog-A-Thon
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.  

jojo-and-sunflowers-croppedThese 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”.

Read more…

One Mom’s Advice: Get Your Kids A Flu Vaccine As Soon As It Becomes Available

November 2, 2016 5 comments

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.

giannaandmomsweetHer 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…

Only Parents Can Prevent Today’s Children From Becoming Tomorrow’s Flu Statistic

December 4, 2014 20 comments

CDC Flu Ambassador Badge FINAL 2014-2015As we countdown to National Influenza Vaccination Week (Dec 7-13) here on Shot of Prevention, we’re participating in a special blog relay with other Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassadors. Each day a different blogger will post about the importance of flu vaccination as it relates to various populations such as parents, children, healthcare workers, the elderly, and people with chronic conditions.  Your invited to join us in conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #NIVW2014, or by commenting on the posts that will appear on the following sites: A Place for Mom (12/1), Nurses Who Vaccinate (12/2), Voices for Vaccines (12/3), Healtheo360(12/5), HealthCentral (12/6), and About.com Cold & Flu (12/7).

The decision to vaccinate our children is based on our overwhelming desire to protect them. While it’s estimated that as many as 93% of children between the ages of 19-35 months were vaccinated in the United States in 2013 in an effort to prevent as many as 16 different diseases, only 58.9% of children 6 months to 17 years, and 52.2% of expectant mothers, were vaccinated against influenza last season.

While we may never know how many of those unvaccinated children were lucky enough to avoid the flu, we do know that each year an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized because of influenza complications, and that during the 2013-2014 influenza season as many as 109 children died.

The question is, how many more will suffer or die this season?

Despite the fact that childhood influenza vaccination rates have been slowly, but steadily, increasing each year since the universal flu recommendation was announced in 2010, last season’s statistics prove that we can do better.

FluAs we prepare for National Influenza Vaccination Week next week (Dec 7th – 13th), it’s my hope that more parents and expectant mothers will realize how dangerous the flu can be – even to healthy children – because the unfortunate reality is that today’s children may be tomorrow’s statistic and they really don’t have a choice in the matter.

As immunization advocates, we owe it to the children to ensure their parents get the information they need to make an intelligent and informed decision.  For instance, a recent study showed that flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74% during flu seasons from 2010-2012. That’s a pretty convincing statistic in favor of childhood flu vaccination.

And then there is research that illustrates the benefits of flu vaccination among pregnant women. For instance, studies show that giving flu vaccine to pregnant women has been 92% effective in preventing hospitalization of infants for flu. That’s because when women get vaccinated during pregnancy they are not only protecting themselves, but they also transfer antibodies to their unborn baby through the placenta, which helps provide their newborn with protection until they can get their own flu vaccine beginning at six months of age. Read more…