CHICAGO – The nation’s first swine flu death, a toddler in Texas, is tragic but health experts say not unexpected, and they advise parents to just take ordinary precautions.
Every year dozens of U.S. children die from seasonal flu; that’s one reason annual flu shots are recommended for children 6 months and older. So far this season, 55 children have died from regular flu, federal health authorities report.
While children, especially those younger than 5, are known to be most vulnerable to severe and fatal complications from seasonal flu, most children who get even the most aggressive strains of flu don’t die.
So far, flu experts say there’s no reason to think the new strain will be much different.
“Nobody should be unduly worried; everybody should be aware of what’s going on and doing things they should be doing in flu season anyway,” said Dr. Mark Dworkin, an infectious disease specialist at University of Illinois at Chicago.
That includes covering your cough, washing your hands often — and telling children to do the same.
Dr. Carlos Perez-Velez, an infectious disease specialist with National Jewish Health system in Denver, says a good trick to get kids to wash their hands long enough to kill germs is to tell them to recite the alphabet A to Z before they quit washing.
Parents should also avoid sending children with fevers or other signs of illness to school, and should skip work if they have those symptoms — usual precautions when they or their kids are sick.
Some wonder about keeping children home from preschool or day care — often called “germ factories” — even when their kids aren’t sick and no flu has been reported.
Dr. Kathryn Edwards, a Vanderbilt University flu specialist, said there’s no reason to keep healthy children home or restrict their activities.
“We need to respond to the swine flu just the way that we respond to seasonal flu,” Edwards said.
The death in Texas, of a 23-month-old boy visiting from Mexico City, “is very, very sad, but we do not have any evidence to say that the swine flu is more severe and will cause more deaths than other flu,” she said.
While there’s no vaccine to protect against the new swine flu strain, some are in development. Experts say parents should still be sure to get annual vaccines to protect children against seasonal flu.
According to the CDC, more than 20,000 children younger than age 5 are hospitalized every year because of seasonal flu. In the 2007-08 flu season, the CDC received reports that 86 children nationwide died from flu complications.
In the 2003-04 season, one of the worst in recent years, at least 153 children died. Even so, the highest death rate was among infants younger than 6 months, and that was just 0.88 per 100,000 babies.
In that season, one-third of children who died had an underlying illness that put them at particularly high risk for severe flu complications and death. Illnesses known to increase children’s susceptibility include asthma and heart and lung problems.
Authorities say the boy who died in Texas had an underlying illness.
Young children are vulnerable to flu complications because their immature immune systems aren’t efficient at fighting off germs, said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, pediatric infectious diseases director at the University of Chicago.
Also, young children have small airways that can swell when flu hits, predisposing them to pneumonia and fluid accumulating in the lungs, he said.
Alexander said parents should watch for classic flu symptoms, including fever of at least 100.5, cough and runny nose. Children old enough to talk might complain of sore throats and body aches. Young children sometimes just have a runny nose and a fever with the flu, and they’re more likely than adults to have vomiting, too, he said.
Parents should contact their physicians if children have these symptoms, but experts said most cases won’t even be flu, let alone swine flu.
Young children with these symptoms who also are having trouble breathing, or who seem less alert or unable to drink liquid should see a doctor right away because these could be signs of dangerous complications, said Dr. Andrew Bonwit, a pediatrician at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.