Influenza has killed 105 children this year, federal officials reported on Friday, and almost none of them had been vaccinated against the virus.
That’s triple the number who died during last year’s flu season. But flu deaths fluctuate a lot and it’s not anywhere near the worst season for child deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in its weekly report on influenza.
“We are getting close to the end of the flu season now but it’s not over,” says CDC flu expert Dr. Michael Jhung.
Deaths from flu and pneumonia are “barely” above the annual level designated as “epidemic”, he said. “We get an epidemic of flu every year,” Jhung added in a telephone interview. “It’s just the flu season. We assign the name epidemic to it.”
Officials reported that six children died of flu last week, the CDC said. That brings the total to 105 for this season, compared to 34 last year. But in the 2010-2011 flu season 122 died, and when the H1N1 swine flu pandemic hit in 2009-2010, it killed 282 U.S. children.
Most of the children who died – 90 percent of them – had not been vaccinated against flu.
This may be confusing, as CDC had reported that the flu vaccine was not especially effective in those most at risk from flu – the elderly. But Jhung says it protects children pretty well.
“In the senior age group it didn’t do as well, but in the children who should have been vaccinated, it actually worked pretty well,” Jhung said. A vaccinated child was 64 percent less likely to be hospitalized with flu this year, or to need to see a doctor for symptoms.
Of the children who died, 60 percent were at unusually high risk for flu complications.
“Children younger than 5 years of age and children of any age with certain chronic health conditions, including asthma or other lung disorders, heart disease, or a neurologic or neurodevelopmental disorder are at high risk of developing serious complications from flu infection,” CDC says’
That means 40 percent were perfectly healthy. Jhung stresses that people who are ill with flu should go to a doctor straightaway, because two flu medications – Tamiflu and Relenza – can help reduce how severe symptoms are. But they have to be given within a day or two of getting sick.
“Antivirals do work,” Jhung said.
Flu kills anywhere between 3,000 and 49,000 people a year — it varies a lot, the CDC says — and people over 65 are far more likely to die from flu than any other age group.