NEW YORK — How bad is this flu season, exactly? Look to the children.
Twenty flu-related deaths have been reported in kids so far this winter, one of the worst tolls this early in the year since the government started keeping track in 2004.
But while such a tally is tragic, that does not mean this year will turn out to be unusually bad. Roughly 100 children die in an average flu season, and it's not yet clear the nation will reach that total.
The deaths this year have included a 6-year-old girl in Maine, a 15-year Michigan student who loved robotics, and 6-foot-4 Texas high school senior Max Schwolert, who grew sick in Wisconsin while visiting his grandparents for the holidays.
"He was kind of a gentle giant" whose death has had a huge impact on his hometown of Flower Mound, said Phil Schwolert, the Texas boy's uncle.
Health officials only started tracking pediatric flu deaths nine years ago, after media reports called attention to children's deaths. That was in 2003-04 when the primary flu germ was the same dangerous flu bug as the one dominating this year. It also was an earlier than normal flu season.
The government ultimately received reports of 153 flu-related deaths in children, from 40 states, and most of them had occurred by the beginning of January. But the reporting was scattershot. So in October 2004, the government started requiring all states to report flu-related deaths in kids.
Other things changed, most notably a broad expansion of who should get flu shots. During the terrible 2003-04 season, flu shots were only advised for children ages 6 months to 2 years.
That didn't help 4-year-old Amanda Kanowitz, who one day in late February 2004 came home from preschool with a cough and died less than three days later. Amanda was found dead in her bed that terrible Monday morning, by her mother.
"The worst day of our lives," said her father, Richard Kanowitz, a Manhattan attorney who went on to found a vaccine-promoting group called Families Fighting Flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gradually expanded its flu shot guidance, and by 2008, all kids 6 months and older were urged to get the vaccine. As a result, the vaccination rate for children grew from under 10 percent back then to around 40 percent today.
Flu vaccine is also much more plentiful. Roughly 130 million doses have been distributed this season, compared to 83 million back then. Public education seems to be better, too, Kanowitz observed.
The last unusually bad flu season for children, was 2009-10 — the year of the new swine flu, which hit young people especially hard. As of early January 2010, 236 flu-related deaths of kids had been reported since the previous August.
It's been difficult to compare the current flu season to those of other winters because this one started about a month earlier than usual.
Look at it this way: The nation is currently about five weeks into flu season, as measured by the first time flu case reports cross above a certain threshold. Two years ago, the nation wasn't five weeks into its flu season until early February, and at that point there were 30 pediatric flu deaths — or 10 more than have been reported at about the same point this year. That suggests that when the dust settles, this season may not be as bad as the one only two years ago.
But for some families, it will be remembered as the worst ever.
In Maine, 6-year-old Avery Lane — a first-grader in Benton who had recently received student-of-the-week honors — died in December following a case of the flu, according to press reports. She was Maine's first pediatric flu death in about two years, a Maine health official said.
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