Even healthy children at risk of dying from influenza, experts say

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CHICAGO -- Amid an uptick in the number of flu cases in the U.S., 10 children have died of influenza in January alone, leaving many to ask: what's different this year?

“Anyone who gets the flu is at risk from dying from the flu,” said Dr. Tina Tan, an infectious disease specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

According to Dr. Tan, there are a wide range of complications that are rare, but can lead to the deaths of even healthy children that get influenza. Among them: influenza pneumonia, a bacterial pneumonia infection, myocarditis, an inflammation of the membranes around the heart, andencephalitis, which can be necrotizing. All of which can be fatal.

Hence why doctors urge adults and children to get immunized during flu season, which the Centers for Disease control recently warned is likely to last through May. This year, fewer people chose to have the immunization for themselves or their children. And once they get the flu, many spiral with other complications.

So far, there have been 30 otherwise healthy children who died from the flu this season, including 10 in January alone. And there is a common theme among the most severe cases: they did not get the flu shot.

“Around 80 percent of the influenza deaths that occur in pediatric patients occur in those who are not vaccinated,” Dr. Tan said.

This year’s flu shot includes four strains of influenza: two “A” and two “B” viruses. Both B strains as well as the H1N1 in the vaccine offer about 60-65 percent protection. But it only provides 30-35 percent protection against H3N2, which is the predominant virus making people sick this year. Still, doctors say any bit of immunity helps.

“The influenza vaccine does help to prevent deaths from influenza disease because even if you do get influenza after being vaccinated, the case of influenza that you get is much milder,” Dr. Tan said.

And, considering the fact that this year’s H3N2 is a particularly virulent strain, Dr. Tan says even now, those who are unvaccinated should get a flu shot.

“We are in the peak of influenza season. We are seeing a lot of hospitalizations and a concentration of deaths that have occurred in the last couple of weeks, and you really need to get yourself immunized if you or your children haven’t been immunized,” Dr. Tan said.

And if you think you have the flu, do not come to the emergency room; call your primary care doctor first. The ERs are packed with sick people, and the threat for getting sick is high.

But if you notice a very high fever that cannot be controlled with Tylenol or ibuprofen, or severe cough that is causing difficulty breathing, then seek immediate help.

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