Flu can kill healthy kids, and the scariest part for parents is that it's impossible to know if your child will be one of those horrible rare cases. The two Maryland teenagers who died suddenly of the flu late last month—13-year-old Ian Willis of Urbana and 15-year-old Zachary Weiland of Woodbine—seemed to be having the typical miserable, achy run-in with the flu, until their symptoms suddenly worsened. In both cases, the parents took their child swiftly to the emergency room, but doctors weren't able to save the boys.
"People look at influenza as a mere nuisance," says Thomas Skinner, a spokesperson for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "That normally is the case. But we do see that influenza can kill healthy young people." The only defense, infectious-disease officials say, is a flu shot, and this year, for the first time, the CDC recommends seasonal flu shots for all children ages 6 months to 18. With the flu season running through the end of the month, parents who thought they would forgo it might want to reconsider, even this late in the season.
Last year, 78 teenagers and children died from the flu, according to the CDC. This year's flu season doesn't look to be as bad, with 17 deaths beyond the two Maryland teens reported so far in young people. But this is the third year that the CDC has found an increased number of flu deaths in children who had both flu and a bacterial infection such as Staphylococcus aureus. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, unlike flu, which is caused by a virus. But the symptoms can be almost identical, so it's hard for doctors to tell if antibiotics will help.
Last fall, I talked with Richard Kanowitz, a New Jersey dad who put his 4-year-old, Amanda, to bed sick one night and never saw her alive again. Her flu death turned him into an unapologetic flu-shot evangelist. It takes two shots spaced a month apart for a child under age 9 who's never had a flu shot to get the full benefit, but CDC officials say that even one shot helps a lot. Teenagers need just one shot. Thimerosal-free shots are available for parents concerned about this mercury-based preservative, and the FluMist nasal spray is mercury free.
Vaccine researcher Paul Offitt tells U.S. News how a boy on his son's Little League team died of flu last year, and he urges parents to get flu shots to protect their own kids. My colleague Deb Kotz recently detailed the pros and cons of a flexible approach to kid's vaccines. On the science front, here's a discovery that could revolutionize vaccines against seasonal flu and pandemic flu.