I advise and encourage my patients to have the flu vaccine.  It is not perfect and there have been many cases of flu this season even after being vaccinated. The flu vaccine is made of dead flu viruses. Since they’re dead, you can’t catch the flu from them.  Also, when you get a vaccine, it takes about 2 weeks for your body to be ready to fight.  In addition, many viruses mimic flu symptoms.

Nonetheless, the flu vaccine mitigates against stronger symptoms and a person’s becoming even sicker.  Lest we forget, the flu can kill people. 

Thank you to Serese Marotta, Chief Operating Officer of Families Fighting Flu (FFF), for allowing me to share her heart-wrenching account of losing her beautiful son to the flu.

Flu season has begun and like other years, we can’t predict how severe this season will be, but we do know that annual flu vaccinations are our best defense. Unlike the common cold, influenza is a serious and highly contagious disease that tends to develop quickly, especially in children, and can lead to hospitalization or even death. Every year in the U.S., approximately 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized, and on average, 100 children die from infection with influenza or its complications[1]. So often we hear “it’s just the flu”, but we need to take the flu seriously. How do I know this? Because my healthy, 5-year-old son, Joseph, lost his life to H1N1 flu in October 2009. I have always been pro-vaccination and Joseph and his sister received their annual flu vaccinations in September 2009, but H1N1 wasn’t in the vaccine that year. Sadly, the H1N1 vaccine didn’t become available in our community until two weeks after Joseph’s death.

Joseph’s Story

Joseph’s story began innocently enough. He was attending kindergarten in the fall of 2009 and threw up on the school bus. Later that day, Joseph continued to throw up and became increasingly lethargic. We called our pediatrician who suggested we take Joseph to the local urgent care. Upon arrival, they found Joseph’s blood oxygen level to be very low and immediately transported him to the local children’s hospital. The rapid flu test came back negative and Joseph was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia.

Several days into his hospital stay, the doctors informed us that Joseph’s culture was growing influenza, which was likely H1N1, but not to worry—it was “just the flu” and they’d start him on antiviral medications. Joseph’s condition over the next several days was relatively stable. Various specialists came and went; all of Joseph’s tests appeared normal and we were even discussing his discharge with the doctors. All of that changed on the ninth day of our hospital stay. Joseph’s blood pressure suddenly plummeted, and we were sent back to the ICU. The doctors couldn’t really figure out what was causing Joseph’s low blood pressure, but they didn’t seem overly alarmed. More testing went on throughout the night, while I tried to distract Joseph with cartoons and discussions about his Halloween costume.

The doctor came to me early on the morning of Oct. 18 to say she wanted to put Joseph on a ventilator because his heart and respiration rates were so high and his little body needed a rest. The doctor emphasized it was not a big deal, but Joseph would be unconscious while on the ventilator. I calmly called my husband, who was at home with our young daughter, and asked him to come to the hospital. Minutes later, while I was standing next to Joseph’s bed, he suddenly coded. The next scene was like something on a TV show—doctors and nurses rushing into Joseph’s room. I backed into the hallway so they could do their job, but honestly, I had no idea what was happening. As the minutes ticked away, I began to realize that something was seriously wrong. I continued to wait outside Joseph’s hospital room and finally, the attending doctor came to me, sobbing, and asked me to follow her into Joseph’s room because she needed me to talk to him. Looking back, I think she thought if modern medicine couldn’t save this child, perhaps the sound of his mother’s voice could. I entered Joseph’s room and held his hand as the doctors and nurses continued to work on him. Finally, the doctor turned to me and said “I’m so sorry.” My precious son lost his life to influenza that day, and my life was irrevocably changed as a result.

My story is not unique. I have met many parents who’ve lost a child to the flu or had a child suffer serious medical complications as a result of the flu. I want parents to understand how critically important it is for all children and their families to get their flu vaccinations each and every year. The flu vaccine is the best protection we have in our fight against influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone six months of age and older. I also want people to understand that getting an annual flu vaccination not only protects you and your family, but it also helps protect others in your community by limiting the potential for an outbreak.

Families Fighting Flu

As a result of my loss, I became involved with Families Fighting Flu (FFF), which is a national, non-profit organization comprised of families whose children have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza, as well as other advocates and healthcare professionals committed to flu prevention. I have since become the Chief Operating Officer at FFF. Together, every day in honor of our children, we work to increase awareness about the seriousness of influenza in the hope that no other family has to endure the devastating effects of this serious disease. Every year, FFF focuses on educational outreach using various platforms to inform others about the dangers of the flu and to advocate for annual flu vaccinations. Our mission is to reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to flu, and our vision is that no child or family member is lost to this vaccine-preventable disease.

My takeaway from the account of this personal tragedy is:

  1. Everyone age 6+ months needs the flu vaccine.
  2. Children age 2 years and younger who come down with the flu are more likely to have serious complications. As a result, both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend the flu vaccine for just about everyone who are at least 6 months old.
  3. Any person with a chronic illness, heart disease, diabetes, on steroids or immunosuppressives must be vaccinated.
  4. In addition, babysitters, housekeepers, teachers, Rebbes, Morahs, therapists and others who work with children should also be vaccinated.
  5. Even if you’re healthy, your co-workers, friends, or family may not be. Getting vaccinated protects you and them from catching and spreading the flu.
  6. Flu season generally runs from October through May. It’s only January. Get the flu vaccine as soon as you can to protect yourself.

And if you get the flu?

If you start feeling sick and are older than 65, are pregnant, have conditions like asthma or diabetes, or have a child younger than 5 who is sick, call your doctor right away. Ask about antiviral medicines. Theoreotically, they can shorten the flu by 1 or 2 days and prevent serious problems like pneumonia.  However, the liquid is very unpalatable to the young and can be expensive, if not covered by insurance.

It’s best if you take them as soon as you have symptoms like fever, sneezing, body aches, stuffiness, or coughing.  If you aren’t likely to have medical problems, you probably don’t need this type of medicine.

I’ve had my flu vaccine.  So, too, have my wife and our children and grandchildren.  Join us. 

To learn more about FFF, please visit https://www.familiesfightingflu.org/resources/flu-materials/ or https://www.familiesfightingflu.org/stay-in-the-game/   Both are filled with important information and offer educational resources related to flu prevention and stories from families who have lost loved ones to the flu.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children, the Flu, and the Flu Vaccine. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/children.htm. Accessed August 8, 2016.

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