Dec. 18, 2019 -- Six children ages 16 and younger have died from flu-related causes in Texas since the flu season began in late September. That earlier-than-usual start to the season has caught many people off guard, according to Jennifer Shuford, MD, an infectious disease medical officer at the Texas Department of State Health Services. The CDC recommends people get their annual flu vaccine by the end of October.
“A lot of people didn’t have time to get vaccinated before influenza hit here,” she says. “Early flu seasons are hard on people, especially families, who put off getting the vaccine because life gets busy.”
The children ranged in age from 1 to 16. The state has vaccination information on four of the deceased children, and none had received it. In addition, four of the six already had health conditions, which may have made them more prone to complications from flu.
“But that means two of the six were healthy before falling ill,” Shuford says. “That reinforces the message we try to get out every year: No one is immune to the effects, and even healthy people can get very sick or die.” Young children, adults older than 65, and people with certain pre-existing conditions are most likely to have severe complications.
State and county officials have provided details about five of the six children who died:
- A 16-year-old from the Austin area with underlying conditions who tested positive for the B strain. It’s not known if the teen had a flu shot.
- A 14-year-old from the San Antonio area with underlying conditions who tested positive for the A strain (H1N1) who had underlying conditions. The teen’s vaccination status is not known.
- A 14-year-old from the Fort Worth area with underlying conditions who tested positive for the B strain and was not vaccinated.
- A 5-year-old from Laredo who was not vaccinated.
- A child from Wichita County in north Texas. No other information is available.
According to the CDC’s weekly flu tracker, 10 children had died nationwide as of December 7. Because of the timing of reporting, that only includes three of the six children in Texas. Thirty-eight states are already reporting widespread or regional flu activity.
Another possible factor in these deaths: the early presence of the influenza B virus, which usually appears later in the season.
“When influenza B is circulating, there tends to be more mortality,” says Pedro Piedra, MD, a professor of molecular virology and microbiology and of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
A study of pediatric influenza deaths from 2010 to 2016 found that the B virus kills proportionately more children than influenza A. The appearance of the flu before widespread vaccination and the more dangerous strain coincided, with deadly consequences.
“Flu activity is at a high level now, and we predict it’ll stay high for a while,” Shuford says. Getting a vaccine right now will still protect you -- and it’s never too late to get one.
If your entire family hasn’t been vaccinated yet, Piedra recommends speaking to your doctor. “Make time to get vaccinated, but also have a game plan for if you get flu. Will you need to be treated with antiviral medication? How will you receive therapy quickly?”
The vaccine takes about 2 weeks to become fully effective, but there are things you can do in the meantime to protect yourself. Frequent hand-washing can help, as can disinfecting surfaces and objects that may be contaminated. And if you feel like you’re getting sick, take care not to spread the flu to others: Sneeze into your elbow, and stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.
But above all, Shuford and Piedra stress the importance of getting vaccinated. “Don’t wait,” says Piedra. “If you think you’ve seen flu, it’s just the beginning. We haven’t peaked.”