The United States has an influenza surveillance system composed of five overlapping parts. You can get an overview of each here. In 2004 laboratory confirmed deaths from influenza in children (persons less than 18 years old) was made a notifiable cause of death by the states and through this we have been able to get a statistical snapshot of this most tragic kind of influenza mortality. There were 8 such deaths in four states reported this past week, occurring from February 1 to February 18, making the total for this flu season 17. Bacterial co-infection with Staph was seen in 10 of the 17 and four of the 10 were MRSA (a worrisome type of antibiotic resistance). And 8 of the 10 were older than age 12. Which reminds me of what the late Irving Selikoff, a renowned asbestos epidemiologist used to say: statistics are people with the tears wiped away:
Four years ago, Martin McGowan, 15, came home after trying out for his high school baseball team and slumped in front of the television. His mother, Diane McGowan thought it was unusual for her athletic teenage son.
“He just wasn’t his active self,” she said. “He usually reminded us of Tigger, bouncing all over the place.”
He went to bed that night complaining of flu-like symptoms.
“He had a temperature,” said McGowan of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. “It was 102. I knew the drill, give them ibuprofen or Motrin, give them something for the pain, and call the doctor the next day and see how it goes. That’s the normal case.”
That night, Martin vomited a couple of times, complained of pains in his legs and his lips were turning white. They rushed to the emergency room.
The doctors said he had the flu.
“Even at that point, I didn’t understand how sick my child was in the emergency room,” McGowan said. “Influenza doesn’t come across like that.”
The day before, Martin had gone running, which had irritated his leg muscles. The condition in his leg had developed into compartment syndrome, which limits blood circulation and causes leg pains. Doctors said he needed surgery as soon as possible.
While he was wheeled into the operating room, Martin turned to say: “Mom, don’t cry. It’s going to be OK.”
Martin died in the operating room.
“To hear that, it’s heart-wrenching,” his mother said. “The autopsy confirms it’s influenza, it rips your heart out.”
“He was a very healthy, active 15-year-old. He hadn’t been feeling well for one day. It hit him hard. It hit him like a lightning bolt. Within 15 hours, he was gone,” she said. (Madison Park, CNN)
Why Martin and not his classmates? We really don’t know. These terrible and swift deaths by young people are somewhat like the seemingly arbitrary but swift deaths of bird flu victims. There are millions of people exposed to the bird flu virus from infected poultry around the world, but lightning strikes only a tiny number. Why? Again, we don’t know. Would the current recommendation that he have a flu shot have saved him? We don’t know.
But I do know that I recommended my two youngest grandsons, who are both under the age of 2, get a flu shot (and one of them has, the other will when he sees the pediatrician next). That recommendation is based on what I know of the science.
But it is also based on the “grandpa factor.”