Young People Felled by Flu
Those of us trying to make sense of the recent flu-related deaths of two Maryland teens have to face the reality that life can be terribly unfair.
While we know that the very young and the very old, those with chronic illnesses or underlying health conditions and those with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable to the flu, even otherwise healthy people can be susceptible.
In an increasing number of cases, influenza, a viral infection of the respiratory tract, ushers in a secondary bacterial infection. Masked by the flu's symptoms -- fever, headache, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and a dry cough -- the bacterial infection can quickly overcome the body's defenses and become deadly.
As I reported yesterday, it's not clear whether Ian Willis, 13, or Zachary Weiland, 15, had been vaccinated against influenza this season. Sadly, even if they had been, the flu shot -- which targets several strains of influenza that health experts have months earlier identified as those most likely to be circulating in the coming flu season -- isn't foolproof. This year's formulation is a good match for the season's predominant strain but apparently not so well matched to the "B" strain that's going around. Still, vaccination typically at least lessens the severity of illness. For now, the flu shot (or intranasal FluMist -- developed by Gaithersburg's MedImmune) is our best protection.
Experts emphasize that good personal hygiene habits can go a long way toward reducing risk of getting the flu. Washing your hands many times throughout the day -- plain old soap and water will do the trick -- can help keep flu virus out of your system.
There is new hope on the vaccine horizon, though. Two teams of scientists have recently discovered flu antibodies; the discoveries could eventually lead to a universal flu vaccine that would be effective against all strains.
In the meantime, as Zachary Weiland's father Kirk Weiland was quoted by WTOP radio, "None of us know how long we have on the earth." A good reminder to go give your kids a hug -- and make sure their vaccinations are up to date.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
March 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Family Health , General Health , Influenza , Vaccinations
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