CDC Study: 4 in 10 Child Flu Victims Were Healthy

December 13, 2013

The flu is more than just sniffles and sneezes. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a sobering reminder that the virus can be deadly, even for healthy children.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, reported that 830 children died of flu-related complications in the eight flu seasons between October 2004 and September 2012. Of those children, 43 percent were healthy and had no high-risk medical conditions like asthma, developmental disorders or heart disease, which can make flu complications more serious.

Audrey Martyn, influenza surveillance coordinator for the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), said the report is a startling reminder for parents.

“Just because a child was healthy before they had influenza does not mean they cannot be impacted by the virus,” Martyn said. “Even healthy children can succumb to the illness.”

Most of the deaths reported occurred in children who had not been vaccinated against the flu, according to the study, highlighting the importance of the CDC’s recommendation that all children age 6 months and older receive an annual flu shot.

Martyn said one of the most startling findings in the report is how quickly the flu can kill. Nearly two-thirds of the children died within one week of the onset of symptoms; 35 percent died before they could be admitted to a hospital, including 18 percent who died in the emergency department and 16 percent who died outside the hospital. Children without other medical conditions were more likely to die before being admitted to a hospital.

The flu vaccine is still the most reliable way to prevent the flu, and the CDC notes that some children ages 6 months-8 years may require two doses of the vaccine. But Martyn said it’s also important for parents to remember that protecting their children, especially young babies, means getting flu shots for themselves.

“Children younger than 6 months of age are not able to receive the influenza vaccine. They rely on those around them to be immunized to protect them from influenza. Remember that getting a vaccine isn’t just for you but can impact the young children around you,” she said.

The study’s authors noted that the true number of flu-associated deaths is likely to be even higher than documented in the report, since the study only counted laboratory-confirmed flu deaths reported to through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. They also noted that antiviral medications, which fight the flu virus after a person gets sick, are underutilized; fewer than half of the children who died from 2010-2012 received any antiviral treatment.

Other findings from the study included:

  • Pneumonia was the most frequently reported complication among children who died.
  • Bacterial co-infections were also a frequently reported complication, most commonly staph and strep.
  • The median age of children who died was 7 years.
  • 57 percent of the children had one or more high-risk medical conditions.

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