Two children in Ohio have died from the flu, and the virus hospitalized 1,750 new patients across the state last week, an 89 percent jump from the 925 new hospitalizations just a week earlier, state officials reported Wednesday.
The Ohio Department of Health said a 4-year-old boy from Montgomery County in the southwest and a 1-year-old boy from Lucas County in the northwest are the first children in the state to die from the flu this season, which runs for 33 weeks beginning in October and ending in May.
Health officials don’t keep track of the number of children diagnosed with the flu, but youngsters tend to be hit harder when influenza A (H3N2) is the most common strain of flu circulating, as is the case this season, said Dr. Clint Koenig, medical director for the state Health Department. He said the same was true in 2014-2015, when H3N2 was prevalent.
"The virus that’s out there is a particularly bad actor with kids," he said. "We continue to recommend the flu shot, because we are seeing numbers continue to rise."
Koenig said there’s good evidence that vaccinating children can cut the rate of pediatric flu deaths in half. Parents, he said, also should get vaccinated.
Health officials are comparing this flu season to the severity of the 2014-2015 season, which brought six child deaths and 9,374 hospitalizations in Ohio.
The 1,750 new flu-related hospitalizations reported in the first week of this year is six times the 285 reported in the first week of 2017.
During the 2016-2017 flu season, seven children in Ohio died from the flu, while one child died in the 2015-2016 season and four died in 2012-2013. There were no child flu deaths in 2013-2014.
"With average, healthy kids, the concern of death tends to be less than with kids born prematurely or who have underlying medical conditions, but really any parent should be worried about the flu," Koenig said. "That’s why we recommend the flu shot for any child over the age of 6 months."
Dr. Miller Sullivan, a pediatrician who serves as medical director for Franklin County Public Health, said the flu seems to be more widespread this year and that more hospitals are treating children and the elderly. While his practice does a good job of vaccinating patients, it is seeing flu in some children as well as parents, he said.
Like 2014-2015, Sullivan said, flu is peaking earlier than normal this season. He hopes to see a plateau soon.
"People think the flu is not serious. The flu can be a deadly illness, and every year thousands of people die from it," Sullivan said. "The flu is not to be taken for granted."
Flu intensity is high across Columbus and Franklin County, with diagnoses, hospitalizations and visits to doctors and emergency departments all on the rise in the last week of December, according to the most-current data available from Columbus Public Health. School absences were at 14.4 percent, compared with 10.1 percent the first week of the season.
At Nationwide Children’s Hospital, it’s a normal flu season as diagnoses rise, said Dr. Mike Patrick, an emergency medicine physician.
"At this point we’re definitely in the midst of widespread influenza, so we’re not unusual," said Dr. Mike Patrick, an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Of greatest concern are the very young, the elderly and people with immune-system problems. Pediatric flu deaths, Patrick said, generally strike children who develop breathing problems, use ventilators at home or have chronic health problems.
He said children with the flu will have a high fever, runny nose, congestion and cough. Most children are able to go home after being seen by a doctor, and standard treatment is rest, fluids and Tylenol. If the flu is accompanied by pneumonia or a child has trouble eating, drinking or breathing, they might be admitted to a hospital.
Due to possible supply problems, the antiviral medication Tamiflu is reserved for children most at risk of complications.
Patrick recommends that parents immediately contact a doctor if a child has a sudden onset of high fever, especially an infant. If children are having trouble breathing or are not eating or drinking, they should be taken in right away.