Feb. 15, 2018 -- As in the past, most children who have died of the flu so far this season had not been vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Of the 63 confirmed child deaths from the flu, investigators have health histories on 56 of them.
Of the 54 kids who were old enough to get the flu vaccine, only 14 -- or 26% -- had gotten at least one dose, according to a flu update published today in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
About half of the children who died had underlying medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to severe complications from the flu, and 60% had been admitted to the hospital before they died.
The children ranged in age from 2 months to 17 years.
In previous flu seasons, as many as 85% of children who died after getting the flu had not been vaccinated.
In a separate study released today, the CDC said that early numbers showed the flu vaccine was more effective for kids than for adults this year, cutting their chances of needing to see a doctor for severe symptoms by more than half.
"That really tells you that we could have cut those deaths significantly if more of those kids had been vaccinated," said Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the NIH.
Other experts echoed his comments.
"The vaccine’s performance in children was better than we were expecting," said Anne Schuchat, MD, interim director of the CDC, in a press briefing.
"The vaccine was 59% effective against influenza A and B in children. We continue to recommend that parents get their kids vaccinated," she said.
The relatively good performance in children compares to a low 36% effectiveness, overall, for adults.
Still, some parents have hesitated to get the shot for their kids, with tragic consequences.
Alivia Viellieux, a 3-year-old from Muncie, IN, was one of the kids who didn’t get a flu vaccine this year. Her family decided not to get one after hearing that it wasn’t very effective.
Last week, after she had flu-like symptoms, her family rushed her to a local ER. She spent 2 days in the hospital on IV fluids and was improving, her family said.
She was released last Thursday, according to a local news report by RTV6, The Indy Channel. She was found dead Monday morning. The county coroner said she died from flu and a secondary infection of pneumonia, according to a news report.
"She was eating Cheerios last night," said her grandmother, Tameka Stettler. "She was walking last night. How does that just happen?"
Buddy Creech, MD, a pediatrician and a spokesman for the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society in Arlington, VA, said both children and adults with flu can suddenly get worse after seeming to improve, and it can happen very fast.
“This sort of double hit is well characterized with flu,” he says. “It’s important for parents to realize it can happen.”
Not only is the flu miserable by itself, it also primes the body for secondary infections. It does this two ways: It weakens the immune system for a while, and it causes your nasal passages to go bald.
Normally, you have tiny hairs called cilia that line the nasal passages. They’re there to snare and sweep away any bacteria that try to get in. The flu causes those hairs, and the protective layer of mucus that sits underneath them, to slough off. That allows the bacteria that normally hang out on the surface of our skin to invade, Creech said.
“It can change the way the bacteria in your nose and throat can gain access to deeper parts of your body,” says Creech, who is also director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program in Nashville.
It takes about 7 days after you’re first infected for this natural protective layer to grow back.
“What we do know is that those who get vaccinated -- even in years where there’s a bit of a mismatch -- are typically more protected, not just from severe flu, but flu itself,” Creech says.
He says parents need to look out for other infections for at least a week after a flu diagnosis. Signs that kids are getting sick a second time include:
- Rapid breathing
- Not acting well, even when the fever comes down
- Complaining of pain in a specific area
- A cough that lingers or gets worse, even as other symptoms seem to be improving
Creech says two of his kids have had the flu in the last week, so this is something he’s thinking about right now. He says the signs of a second infection can be subtle.
“Even as a pediatrician, I look at them and sometimes it’s hard to tell,” he says.
The bottom line, Creech says, is that you know your kids better than anyone else. If they don’t seem right, call a doctor.
“I think every pediatrician on the planet, if a parent is concerned, wants them to call and ask questions,” he says.
Because we’re only about halfway through the flu season, it’s still not too late to get a child vaccinated. The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for all children older than 6 months of age.
Kids who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time need a double dose. This is called the two-shot prime. The two shots are given about a month apart. If you aren’t sure whether your child has had that double dose, ask your pediatrician.
If your child missed the two-shot prime, the CDC recommends getting them another dose this year.