Jan. 18, 2018 -- When Franki Andersen hears someone say they don't bother with getting a flu shot, she doesn't lecture or criticize.
But because she knows what can happen when you don’t, she does feel compelled to share her heartbreaking flu story.
In 2016, Franki and her 20-year-old daughter, Brittany, were inseparable. Britt, as she was known, and her mom could have passed for sisters. They worked together in Franki's housecleaning business in Milford, IA, and often traveled together.
In March of that year, Britt came down with a raspy throat, and Franki was concerned. But Britt took some over-the-counter medicine and reassured her mom she was better. When her symptoms returned the next day, Franki made her daughter toast and juice and helped her into bed, checking on her regularly.
A little before noon, Franki couldn't rouse Britt. She called an ambulance. Franki didn’t have a pulse, and paramedics rushed her to the local hospital. Doctors restored her pulse, then ordered her life-flighted to a hospital in Sioux Falls, SD.
In Sioux Falls, the news only got worse. Britt had Influenza A, a common strain. Sepsis, which can lead to organ failure, had set in. Doctors couldn't stabilize her, and suddenly, Britt’s heart stopped twice within a few minutes. At that point, the family had to make the heart-wrenching decision to stop lifesaving efforts.
"The sepsis had taken over," Franki says.
When sepsis happens, chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight an infection, such as the flu, cause inflammation throughout the body. That can lead to a cascade of events, including the failure of multiple organs.
"We didn't see it coming," Franki says of the severe complications of the flu. Now, nearly 2 years later, she still is in disbelief. One minute, she says, a child or young adult is healthy and active, "and in the next 48 hours, they are gone."
She says she and Britt just never thought about the flu or getting a flu shot.
People often don't think of young adults as vulnerable to the flu, but anyone can die of it and its complications.
According to the CDC, 12,000 to 56,000 people in the U.S. died of flu-associated causes from 2010 to 2014. Some people are more vulnerable. Among them are:
- People with underlying health conditions, such as heart and lung problems
- Children younger than age 5, and especially under age 2
- Adults age 65 and older
- Pregnant women and those who have given birth in the past 2 weeks
- Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- Anyone of American Indian or Alaska Native descent
This year's flu season may be especially severe, CDC officials said in mid-January. So far this season, the deaths of 20 children have been linked to flu-related causes, and widespread flu activity has been reported in the entire continental U.S.
An influenza A strain known as H3N2 is the most prevalent this season. The vaccine, which is made to protect against the strains expected to be prevalent, is about 30% effective this year, CDC officials say. But officials stress that even if you end up getting the flu despite being vaccinated, the shot may make your episode less severe.
Infectious Disease Expert's Perspective
Stories of young adults and children dying from the flu are tragic and not uncommon, says Aaron Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital. He did not treat Britt Andersen but spoke in general about how the flu can turn deadly.
For many, flu symptoms can be mild, he says, "but there is a subgroup of patients, especially those with underlying diseases [such as heart disease] or those at extreme ends of life, who potentially can get a much more severe episode."
The flu can come on with breathing difficulties and rapidly progress to become fatal, he says.
As a child, Britt Andersen had strep throat several times, and she had been on life support four times, her mother said. But at the time she came down with the flu, she had no underlying conditions, she said.
Glatt, who's also a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, says that means Britt may have had “an underlying predisposition to infection” that could have led to her severe case.
A flu shot could have helped to protect her from that severe case, he says.
People who do have underlying illnesses should see a doctor promptly about major symptoms or if symptoms get worse, Glatt says.
Franki says it simply wasn’t on their radar to get a flu shot.
They have a lot of company. Only about two of every five U.S. children and adults had been vaccinated against influenza as of November 2017, the CDC says.
"We commonly hear that people don't bother to get vaccinated because they think it's not effective, and therefore, not worth it," says Serese Marotta, chief operating officer of Families Fighting Flu, an advocacy group promoting vaccination.
She says vaccination protection varies from year to year, but "some protection is better than none." She lost her son Joseph, then 5, to influenza in 2009.
Franki also works to tell more people about vaccination. She has shared her story with Families Fighting Flu, and she organizes a flu awareness walk near her home. Funds from it help pay for the vaccine for those who can't afford it.
On her Facebook page, she posts remembrances of Britt and posts about flu awareness. As she goes about her everyday life, she talks to people she meets about the flu, the value of the vaccine, and how the flu can be deadly. "It's the unseen enemy," she says.