Flu study finds child victims died quickly

December 15, 2005|By NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- Many of the children who became severely ill during the 2003-2004 flu season died within one to three days of exhibiting symptoms, say government experts who report that influenza still poses many mysteries.

Medical investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed pediatric infections from two years ago, when there was an earlier-than-usual wave of infections nationwide. The flu quickly proved especially dangerous for children. It was estimated that 153 children younger than age 18 died, but experts who continue to study the cases think the death toll might have been higher.

Dr. Tim Uyeki, senior author of a report that appears in today's New England Journal of Medicine, said one stumbling block is the mercurial nature of flu viruses. They are constantly changing, which has an impact on a season's virulence.

It is not well understood how flu infections cause death, said Uyeki, a medical epidemiologist in the influenza branch of the CDC. But it is well known that babies -- especially those younger than 6 months -- are particularly vulnerable because of the immaturity of their immune systems. People older than age 65 are also vulnerable because their immunity has been weakened by age. The CDC estimates that 36,000 people die annually of flu.

About one-third of the 153 flu deaths studied by Uyeki and his colleagues involved children who died within three days of exhibiting symptoms. Five percent died within a day. A majority were perceived as healthy and did not have any known underlying conditions before flu symptoms emerged. More than half were younger than age 5, and 12 percent were 6 months old or younger.

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