- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2018

At least 37 children in the U.S. have died from the flu or pneumonia, including 17 in the past week, and that figure is expected to rise sharply over the last two months of the flu season.

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said pediatric deaths resulting from flu are generally underreported.

“It isn’t the highest number we’ve seen over the past few years, but it certainly is a high number,” Dr. Fauci told The Washington Times.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu-related illnesses have killed 12 children ages 5 to 11, eight children ages 2 to 6, seven infants ages 6 to 23 months, eight adolescents ages 12 to 17 and two infants 5 months or younger.

A disclaimer on the CDC’s website notes that the data lag behind state-reported numbers. The most recent numbers cover hospitalizations and deaths from Oct. 1 through Jan. 13.

By the second week in January, the CDC recorded almost 12,000 flu-related hospitalizations. The highest number of those seriously ill were 65 and older, although officials were surprised to find the second highest rate of hospitalizations are occurring in the 50-to-64-year-old age group.

“The most important thing is that the last CDC update showed that there was still an uptick in flu activity, even though it had looked like it might have leveled off the week before,” said Dr. Michael Chang, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. “So again, be really vigilant about the hygiene issues, and it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine.”

Based on data from previous years, the CDC estimates that 80 percent to 85 percent of pediatric flu-related deaths are in children who have not been vaccinated.

But a vaccination didn’t help in the case of 8-year-old Tyler Dannaway of Little Rock, Arkansas. Within a few days of showing severe flu symptoms, he died at a hospital on Jan. 16. His family told local CBS News affiliate KARK that the boy had been vaccinated.

“It’s just mind-boggling,” his father told the news station. “There’s no way to wrap your head around it.”

The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone older than 6 months. It takes about two weeks to become effective.

Private manufacturers prepared 151 million to 166 million vaccines for the current flu season. By November, the CDC estimated that 2 out of 5 children had received a vaccine. The rate was similar to those of previous flu seasons.

Flu cases started to appear earlier than usual around the end of September, indicating a longer, more challenging season overall, health professionals said.

In Oklahoma and Arkansas, schools are responding to large numbers of cases of flu among students and faculty with closures lasting from a couple of days to as long as a week.

“There comes a point where a number of kids are not attending for multiple reasons, in this case it’s the flu. And it’s more effective and efficient to close down for a while,” said Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.

Superintendent Dennis Copeland of Mountainburg, Arkansas, said this is the first time in 10 years that he has been forced to close his school district because of the flu.

“We monitored it for several days, and it kept growing. Basically, our staff started falling down with the flu as well, and that was the turning point,” Mr. Copeland told The Times.

Health officials expressed concern about the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine after Australia experienced a severe season. They noted that the vaccine doesn’t match the predominant H3N2 flu strain that is spreading.

Still, professionals say, even a vaccine with low effectiveness can mitigate some severe flu symptoms.

“Any degree of protection with a vaccine is better than no protection at all,” Dr. Fauci said. “It is not too late to get vaccinated because there are several more weeks of a lot of influenza.”

Dr. Chang said it’s unclear why H3N2 makes more people sick than other viral strains. Health officials believe it’s related to the virus’ ability to mutate more often and more quickly than scientists can develop a vaccine or humans can build up an immunity to it, he said.

“If you go back and look at the trends over several years, when H3N2 is the major circulating strain, we do have, generally speaking, higher mortality, and so that may translate into pediatric mortality,” Dr. Chang said.

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