Health officials in Florida announced that a child has died in association with the flu, marking the first pediatric flu-related death in Florida in the 2018-2019 season.
The Florida Department of Health's Bureau of Epidemiology says, in a report obtained by SELF, that the unidentified child tested positive for influenza B at a health care provider, and the death was reported between September 30 and October 6. The child did not have any underlying health issues and was healthy before getting the flu but had not been vaccinated, the report states. No other information was made available. “Due to the rare nature of these child flu deaths and privacy concerns for the victim and family, the department does not release the county or the age,” Brad Dalton, deputy press secretary for the Florida Department of Health, tells SELF.
While this marks the first flu-associated pediatric death in the state of Florida, it's unclear if this is the first pediatric death of the 2018-2019 flu season across the U.S., as it has not yet been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC told SELF they will release an updated flu surveillance report Friday.
This news is tragic as well as a bit shocking, given how early it is in the flu season. In fact, the CDC recently recommended that people, especially children, get their flu shot by Halloween—a deadline that hasn’t even arrived yet. “The flu can do just terrible things to children and adults,” William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells SELF. “That it happened so early in the season does raise our eyebrows just a little.”
That being said, it’s certainly possible for someone to develop a serious case early on in flu season, which usually stretches between October and February, although it can last through May. "Unfortunately, the flu can occur year round, although it is more common during the winter months," Richard R. Watkins, M.D., an associate professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University and an infectious diseases physician in Akron, Ohio, tells SELF. Doctors "tend to see it in earnest by the end of October,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. “But it's not unheard of for someone to get it this early.”
Anyone can develop serious complications from the flu—and even die from it—but children and the elderly are the most vulnerable.
You tend to get exposed to the influenza virus throughout your life and build up immunological experience with it as you grow older, Dr. Adalja explains. But children don’t have that experience. (Your immune system also tends to weaken when you hit your mid-60s and develop other health conditions, which is why elderly individuals are also at risk.) “[Children] are reacting to a really novel virus to them,” he adds.
As a result, a child can develop serious complications—like pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections—or even die from the flu, the CDC says. “Normal, healthy children can be made very sick and require admission to the hospital within 24 hours after the onset of flu symptoms,” Dr. Schaffner says. Children younger than 5—and especially those younger than 2—are at "high risk" of serious flu complications, according to the CDC. Children also cannot get vaccinated until they are 6 months of age.
And because influenza is extremely common and contagious, "once it gets in a community it can affect a lot of people, especially children," Camille Sabella, M.D., head of the Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, tells SELF.
That's why the flu vaccine is so crucial for children who are of age, and for people who are around children who are still too young to get vaccinated.
The vaccine works by causing antibodies to develop in your body about two weeks after you’re vaccinated, the CDC explains. These antibodies then help protect you against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. Vaccines include influenza viruses that experts predict will be the most common in the upcoming season, and they usually protect against two influenza A viruses and one influenza B virus.
“The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent flu deaths,” Dr. Adalja says. “We find that the vast, vast majority of children who die from the flu are not vaccinated.” It's worth noting that the flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, and it's still possible for a child to die from the flu after getting vaccinated. But even an imperfect flu vaccine helps reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. “It makes it substantially less likely that if your child happens to get the flu that they will die,” Dr. Schaffner notes.
There are a few other things you can do to further protect your child if the flu is going around your home or their classroom.
“It’s going to be hard to completely avoid exposure to flu, which is why the best thing you can do is ensure that your child is vaccinated,” Dr. Adalja points out. This year, the flu vaccine is available via a shot or nasal spray. Once you have that taken care of, you’ll want to make sure that your child practices washes their hands with soap and water often. Hand sanitizers are also a good flu-fighting tool, Dr. Schaffner says.
People can be contagious with the flu before they even have symptoms. So, teaching your child to practice good overall hygiene (e.g. not sharing water bottles with other people) is also important, Dr. Adalja says. And stress to your child that if they see someone sneezing and coughing a lot, they should try to avoid them as much as they can, Dr. Schaffner says.
At home, the best way to protect your child is to make sure everyone in the family is vaccinated against the flu and to practice good hand hygiene, Dr. Schaffner says.
If your child does come down with the flu, don’t panic.
First, you should call your child’s pediatrician ASAP, who may prescribe an anti-viral drug like Tamiflu, Dr. Schaffner says. That can shorten the course of the illness and help lower the risk that your child will develop serious complications, he explains.
Then, make sure your child is comfortable and drinking plenty of fluids, Dr. Adalja says. You can also give them an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen if they have a fever to try to help bring it down and decrease aches and pains, he says.
Given that the flu spreads easily, you’ll also want to keep your child at home and away from other people as much as possible, Dr. Schaffner says. After your child has been fever-free (without the help of fever-reducing medication) for 24 hours, they can go back to school, the CDC says.
If your child is sick for more than a week, or if they develop new symptoms or if their symptoms worsen, see the doctor.