An elementary school child from central Maine died last week from the flu, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday.
The child was healthy before getting sick with influenza symptoms and had no underlying medical problems, said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC.
“Our hearts go out to the family and the school and the community that had to suffer this tragedy,” she said.
Pinette declined to release the child’s age or hometown. The child’s official residence remained unclear, she said.
The death marks the first pediatric flu fatality in Maine this season. The last time influenza claimed the life of a child in the state was during the 2010-2011 flu season, when a vaccinated child from York County died.
Influenza deaths among children, which must be reported to public health officials, are rare, according to Pinette.
“Flu is often seen as a disease that takes the life of the elderly and frail, but children are also vulnerable,” she said.
Maine CDC hasn’t yet recorded any flu deaths among adults this season, Pinette said. Public health officials recommend but don’t require that health providers report those deaths.
“We don’t always know or hear about it,” Pinette said.
In announcing the child’s death, Maine CDC urged those who haven’t yet been vaccinated against the flu to get their annual flu shot. Health officials encourage everyone over 6 months of age to be vaccinated against the illness, including those who were immunized last year.
The vaccine, available as both a shot and a nasal spray, takes full effect about two weeks after it is administered, but offers some protection right away.
How well the vaccine protects against influenza varies from season to season and can depend on the individual. The vaccine is reformulated each year to match emerging strains of the illness.
Three strains of the flu are circulating nationally. The flu vaccine is likely to offer good protection against all of them, according to health officials.
The central Maine child who died was sicked with influenza A H3N2, a strain that’s “coming on a little stronger and a little faster and earlier than we anticipated,” Pinette said. She said she did not believe the child had been vaccinated against the flu.
Several other local children also became ill but experienced less severe symptoms, she said.
Plenty of vaccine is available this season, Pinette said. Flu vaccines are available at most health care provider offices and most pharmacies.
The flu season that started this fall is shaping up to be worse than the last, with more outbreaks reported in Maine so far than during all of the prior season, she said.
The illness’ spread typically peaks in January and February but can continue into May.
Every year, up to 20 percent of Americans will get the flu, according to the U.S. CDC. On average, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for influenza-related complications. People at high risk for developing flu-related complications include children younger than age 5, adults aged 65 and older, pregnant women, American Indians, Alaska natives, people with underlying medical conditions and the morbidly obese.
Symptoms of influenza include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
“Anyone with these symptoms should follow the No Flu 4 You guidelines,” Pinette said. “This includes hand washing, good respiratory etiquette, including covering your cough, staying home while ill and getting vaccinated.”
Complications can include dehydration, pneumonia, and bronchitis.
“We’re really, really concerned right now as the holiday season begins,” Pinette said. “People are traveling in planes and trains and buses and people are sneezing into the air and into pressurized areas where it’s not well ventilated, so your risk is increased.”
Anyone experiencing symptoms should visit their doctor to rule out other viral illnesses and consider treatment with the prescription antiviral drug Tamiflu, she said.
“If you’re sick, you need to stay home from work and keep your child home from school until at least 24 hours after symptoms have resolved,” she said.