Richard Kanowitz’s 4-year-old daughter, Amanda, died of the flu, barely 72 hours after she first complained of feeling ill.
Amanda came home from preschool on a Friday afternoon with a slight cough and fever, her father recalled. Her symptoms progressed slowly over the weekend and, by Sunday, she was sluggish, still feverish and now vomiting. The pediatrician said there were multiple viruses circulating and advised the parents to just keep her hydrated.
They did, but on Monday morning, Kanowitz went to wake Amanda, only to find that she had died during the night.
Amanda had not been vaccinated against influenza — U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines at the time only recommended that children aged 6 months to 23 months be inoculated. “She didn’t fall within the guidelines, so we didn’t vaccinate her,” Kanowitz said. “We were unaware how serious influenza is, that it kills healthy children.”
Thanks partly to Kanowitz, who went on to found a group known as Families Fighting Flu, CDC recommendations now urge that all children aged 6 months to 19 years be vaccinated.
Pregnant women are also urged to get the flu shot, not only because they are at higher risk for flu-related complications, but because their vaccinations will also benefit their babies. Infants under 6 months have the highest rate of hospitalization from the flu among children. Despite this hard fact, only 20 percent of currently pregnant women recently surveyed said they planned to be vaccinated this season.
Kanowitz and his wife are now religious about vaccinating their two other children, aged 19 months and 6 years. “The best way that we could have had Amanda here today was to get her vaccinated,” he said. “It is the single most important thing parents can do to protect themselves and their children.”
“Flu is a killer, no question,” said Dr. John Treanor, a professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “And even though we usually think about flu as being a killer of old people or those with chronic disease, which it is, we’ve also become more aware of deaths in young children.”
“Most of the kids who die of the flu were not vaccinated, and only about half of them have the kind of high-risk conditions that we normally target vaccine for,” Treanor said.
The high mortality rate during the past two flu seasons may have been due to a poor match between circulating flu strains and those included in the vaccine, which is updated every year.
Officials are predicting that this year’s vaccine will be a better match and in plentiful supply.
Each year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to complications from the flu, and 36,000 die, often from high-risk groups such as the elderly and those with chronic health issues.
Although the CDC recommends that anyone who wants to reduce their odds of getting the flu be vaccinated, priority groups include children aged 6 months to 19 years; pregnant women; people aged 50 and older; people of any age with chronic medical conditions; those who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities; and those at high risk for flu-related complications such as health-care workers, household contacts of people at high risk for complications, and household contacts and out-of-home caregivers of children under 6 months (who are too young to be vaccinated).
According to the CDC, flu season varies somewhat each year but can start as early as October, usually peaking in January or after and even as late as March.
“It’s hard to say, but in a typical year, we see the first cases usually around December, and things start to pick up when kids go back to school after the Christmas holidays,” Treanor said. “Maybe if we could stamp it out in kids, it wouldn’t spread to adults.”