Why Are So Many Healthy Kids Dying From the Flu?

by Lisa René LeClair

Photograph by Twenty20

It seems no one is safe from this year's flu, not even our kids. According to the CDC, there have been 84 pediatric deaths since the deadly virus began wreaking havoc on the U.S. in early October—22 of which occurred in the same week—but the most disturbing detail is that many of those children were otherwise healthy.

Surprisingly, this isn't the first time healthy kids have died from influenza. In 2013, USA Today shared a CDC report stating that 830 children had died from flu-related complications between October 2004 and September 2012. Though many of the children never received a flu vaccine, 43 percent were in good health before the virus reared its ugly head.

Here we are today, five years later, still scratching our heads and wondering: Why are so many healthy children dying from the flu?

In a new study, conducted by Dr. Bria Coates, critical care physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, researchers hope to answer this question as well as discover new methods of treatment.

Using healthy adult and young mice (with no previous exposures to the virus), scientists examined the immune pathways commonly activated during flu infections. In doing so, they were able to determine that the immune system of a healthy child—specifically the “monocytes” cells, which are more resistant—can sometimes overreact to the influenza virus, leading to greater inflammation, severe lung damage and increased mortality.

"This new evidence reverses earlier assumptions that the young are more susceptible to the flu because their immune systems do not mount a strong enough response to the virus,” said Coates. “In our study, juvenile mice continued to have an exaggerated immune response even after the virus was cleared from the body. The flu was a trigger to the inflammation that their system couldn't turn off, which proved fatal."

Though Coates believes the discovery will “provide new targets for developing effective medicines to treat the flu in children," it hasn’t happened yet. Until then, she urges parents to continue taking their kids (and themselves) to the doctor each year to get vaccinated against this deadly disease.

"Even when the vaccine is not a perfect match to the circulating influenza strain, as is the case this year, the vaccine still helps prevent more severe infections if children get sick with the flu,” adds Coates.

It's true that getting vaccinated does not exempt you from becoming sick, but it can help protect those around you, including those most vulnerable to the deadly virus, like babies and young children.

What a small price to pay for peace of mind.

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