CDC Warns Flu-Related Pediatric Deaths Could Reach Record Highs & Here's What Parents Need To Know

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An increasing number of people are heading into clinics and emergency rooms complaining of flu-like symptoms, making this flu season one of the worst in the past decade, health officials told CBS News this week. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly report on flu activity, more than 6 percent of people who went to see a doctor in January did so because of symptoms related to influenza — a figure on par with the 2009 swine flu pandemic, CBS News reported. But there’s a reason that parents might be especially concerned to hear the agency’s latest flu data: since mid-October, some 37 children have reportedly died from influenza — including 17 in the past week, according to the CDC. On Monday, health officials warned that they expect the rate of flu-related child deaths to go even higher as we near the end of the flu season.

CBS News quoted the CDC’s influenza division director, Daniel Jernigan, speaking on the expected uptick in severe flu cases in children:

We've seen kids are really making up the predominant amount of influenza-like illness. And they're taking that back to school, it's getting transmitted there, and I think that's really what's driving a lot of the visits to the outpatient clinic right now.

The CDC's weekly report notes that flu-related illnesses have killed an alarming number of children: 12 children between the ages 5 to 11; eight children between the ages 2 to 6; seven infants aged from 6 to 23 months; eight adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17; and two infants 5 months or younger.

Speaking to The Washington Times, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that pediatric deaths resulting from influenza are generally underreported. “It isn’t the highest number we’ve seen over the past few years, but it certainly is a high number,” he told the publication. Still, parents are likely to be concerned when hearing those numbers, especially at a time when most of the country is experiencing what health officials are calling “widespread and intense flu activity,” as TIME reported.

Despite the scary statistics (and even more frightening stories in the media about children who have passed away from the flu), there's no need to panic just yet. But there are some important things for parents to keep in mind when it comes to keeping kids healthy in a bad flu season.

This Season Is Bad, But We’ve Seen Way Worse

When it comes to pediatric deaths, this season is worse than what we’ve seen over the past two years, according to the CDC. But prior years have been way worse: according to TIME, the number of children killed by influenza-related illnesses each season has ranged over the last decade from a low of 37 (in 2011-2012) to a high of 288 (in 2009-2010). And Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., told TIME that we may have already reached the peak when it comes to flu activity, explaining:

If you assume we’re about halfway through the season, and you multiplied the 30 cases so far by two, that’s a relatively average year for pediatric deaths. Having said that, we don’t want people to think this year is not dangerous — because each and every year, children do die.

Kids With Flu Symptoms Should Always See A Doctor

That’s why kids who show signs of the flu should always see a doctor, she told the outlet. Typically, doctors warn that influenza is most concerning for children, pregnant women, and elderly patients who have other health conditions. But DeBiasi told TIME that about 40 percent of children who die from influenza every year have no preexisting conditions. “You really can’t reassure yourself that your child, who seems to be perfectly healthy, is not going to be a victim of the severe flu,” she told TIME.

So getting seen within the first few days of feeling ill is important. And for parents who aren’t sure how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, the CDC offers some tips; symptoms of the flu can be similar to those of a cold, but flu symptoms tend to be way more severe. People with the flu will usually have a fever or complain of feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue, according to the CDC.

But the only way to really tell if someone has the flu is through testing performed at a doctor’s office, the CDC advises.

A Flu Shot Can Still Be Helpful — Even This Late In Flu Season

The Washington Times reported that, using CDC data from previous years, an estimated 80 to 85 percent of pediatric flu-related deaths were in children who have not been vaccinated. And with just a couple of months left in the flu season, parents might begin convincing themselves that it’s too late to get a vaccine — or that getting one at this point wouldn’t be effective.

DeBiasi told TIME that would be a mistake:

It’s not perfect and it’s not 100% effective, but it’s the best thing we have. And the flu vaccine is one of the safest, most vetted and most studied vaccinations there is. It’s really hard for me to see parents who didn’t vaccinate and now their child is in the ICU with the flu. We don’t know if the vaccine would have prevented it, but it’s likely it would have at least ameliorated that child’s symptoms.

Without question, the stories about kids who've died from the flu — and this latest round of flu stats — would scare any parent. But the fact remains that most kids (and adults!) who contract the flu will recover with some TLC and medicine, as the CDC advises. For information on flu clinics and vaccine availability near you, visit the CDC flu vaccine finder online.

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