When the Flu Kills

The flu kills an estimated 36,000 Americans every year.

September 17, 2008, 2:52 PM

Sept. 3, 2008— -- When 6-month-old Marques Jackson developed a high fever and a cough, his family chalked it up to a bad winter cold.

It was December 2003, and the Jackson family, of Cleveland, was looking forward to celebrating a first Christmas for baby Marques and his twin sister, Chalise.

But when Marques' symptoms worsened, his family rushed him to the hospital. Rick Cerett, the twins' grandfather, recalled doctors in the emergency room telling him that Marques had influenza.

A few days later, Marques died as he was being rushed back to the emergency room.

Cerett said he never knew the flu was fatal, or that it was anything more than a 24-hour virus.

"Just like anything else, you learn more and more after it happens," Cerett said. "And we always wish we knew before." Visit the OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center

Influenza, or the flu, is an upper respiratory infection whose symptoms can commonly be mistaken for a cold. However, unlike a cold, influenza can attack the chest, causing pneumonia, seizures and other complications. And while most regard the illness as a common inconvenience or a short-lived bug, it is a disease that kills an estimated 36,000 Americans every year.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get an annual flu shot. Although initial recommendations for the flu vaccine only included individuals over the age of 50 and those with a chronic illness, this year the CDC's advisory on immunization practices expands the age range of people eligible to receive the flu vaccine.

Now the committee additionally suggests that every child from 6 months to 18 years old receive the vaccination.

"The initial recommendations were focused on trying to protect individuals who were at greatest risk," said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. "The recommendations are now broadened to try to prevent anyone from getting [the flu]."

Flu Shot and Pregnancy

Although Marques was not eligible to receive the flu vaccine at the time, doctors told the Jackson family that Christina Fry, Marques's mother, could have protected Marques by getting the flu shot while she was pregnant.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also suggests that women at any stage of her pregnancy get the flu shot, stating "any theoretical risk of the vaccination is outweighed by its benefits." However, the ACOG does not recommend that pregnant women use the nasal vaccine spray because it contains a live virus.

But Cerett believes that an earlier recommendation by the CDC to lower the eligibility age for flu shots could have saved his grandson.

"When we look back, we think, 'Did we go somewhere, did we stop somewhere, was one of our family members ill and passed it on to Marques?'" Cerett said. "[We] look back and try to figure out what happened and what we could have done differently."

But can the flu shot keep you alive?

Schaffner said getting the flu shot -- which is available from late September through early spring -- does not mean that you will not get the flu, but it may prevent the transmission of life-threatening symptoms caused by the flu. Each year, a new vaccine is created to accommodate the changing strain of the virus.

"Even if [the flu] doesn't match the vaccine strain of the year, you do get some protection," Schaffner said. "Partial protection is better than none."

Indeed, many physicians recommend the flu shot to all their patients -- regardless of age. But a number of patients still refuse. A few years ago, Diane McGowan was one mother who did not see the need for her and her family to get annual vaccinations.

"I was a parent that had the misconception that we didn't need the flu shot unless we had a chronic illness," said McGowan. That was her feeling until 2005, when her 15-year-old son, Martin, died from influenza.

Schaffner said misinformation about the vaccine keeps some people from getting the flu shot. One myth, he said, is that a person can get the flu from getting the flu vaccine.

Cold and Flu Precautions

"Because we administer the shot during the cold season, you may get the shot when you have already developed cold symptoms," Schaffner said.

The CDC also recommends avoiding close contact with others, even if they do not have influenza, as well as taking antiviral medications. McGowan said along with an annual flu shot -- which she and her family now receives -- community awareness is also an important method of prevention.

McGowan has created the nonprofit organization M.A.R.T.I.N. (May All Receive Their Immunizations Now) Flu Foundation, which she hopes will educate others about the severity of the flu and the importance of vaccinations.

"Every time I see the number of deaths from the flu, it kills me," McGowan said. "Because I know it's preventable."

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