By Lauren M. Kuwik
At the end of December, the CDC released an emergency advisory for all health care providers concerning the recent spike in influenza cases. This came as no surprise to those of us in primary care offices as we are swamped caring for patients with influenza. As an internist and pediatrician, I have witnessed the devastating consequences of influenza and remain passionate about influenza prevention and treatment.
Physicians worry about the influenza virus because unlike the “stomach flu” which can be miserable and inconvenient, influenza can be deadly. Young children, older adults, those with chronic lung and heart disease among other groups have a high risk of hospitalization and death from the flu. And this is nothing to take lightly. I have had patients leave my office in an ambulance, ultimately to die from the flu at the hospital. Influenza can cause respiratory arrest in infants.
In fact, children under two have the highest risk of death if infected with influenza. Influenza encephalitis can also ravage through a child’s brain, leaving them brain damaged and nonverbal, as it did for one of my patients.
As part of our training, we learn to stay calm in the face of medical calamity. Not much alarms this physician mother, especially my own children being sick. In my private practice, we have had a few patients walk in with chest pain and when the EKG shows a heart attack, we calmly care for them until the ambulance arrives.
But when the flu invaded my own own household, it sent shivers up my spine.
Last winter, my then healthy 7-year-old came down with influenza. I started to feel my own chest clench while listening to my febrile son complain a few days into his illness that it hurt his chest to breathe. I know all too well the killer that is influenza. In 2009, the year I was pregnant with him, we had an epidemic of swine flu, or the H1N1 variant of the influenza A virus. There were two children who died locally of post-influenza-related bacterial infections, a known complication.
Like the CDC, the New York State Department of Health releases weekly updates on disease activity during flu season. At the bottom of the report, there is a graph that I find devastating to view. In fact, I usually hold my breath while scrolling to that section, hoping not to find a little green bar added to the graph, depicting a child who died of the flu in New York State. Each year, it is a handful of children but usually there is someone from our local county.
It is important to note that 80-90 percent of children who died from the flu in recent years are not vaccinated, so if your child has not yet received the vaccine, please do so.
Sadly, this last week we had the first pediatric death reported in New York State. It is gut wrenching to see children’s lives represented as green rectangles on a graph and I look forward to the season we leave this graph blank.
Lauren M. Kuwik, M.D., is a physician with O'Connor Medical Group in Orchard Park.