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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2003

U.S. child deaths from flu hit 42

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Federal health authorities said yesterday that 42 children have died from the flu this year, including two in Ohio and one suspected death in Michigan, but they cautioned there's no way of determining if that number is higher than normal.

Reports of deaths among children this flu season - a season that's hit earlier than normal - have panicked many parents and caused them to scramble to get their children vaccinated. Their search has often ended in vain, as demand for flu vaccinations has surged and caused most locations to run out.

“I'm very frustrated,” said Kate Boyd of South Toledo, who has tried unsuccessfully to track down flu shots for her children, ages 13 and 16.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday there are no reliable figures on the number of children who die annually from the flu.

In Ohio, a 14-month-old from Ross County - a surviving twin who herself had health problems - and a 3-year-old from Montgomery County have died from the flu. In Michigan, authorities suspect a 10-year-old from Lansing has died from the flu, but do not have final results to confirm this.

Dr. Gerberding, who had long avoided using the “e” word, yesterday called the nationwide flu outbreak a bona fide epidemic. “From a practical perspective, given the number of people affected, it's fair to characterize it as an epidemic,” Dr. Gerberding said.

Overall, about 36,000 people nationwide die each year from the flu, generally the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

“The vast majority of those who [get the flu], about 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, do perfectly fine,” Dr. Gerberding said.

Despite widespread media attention to this year's outbreak, she said there's no evidence yet to suggest this year's strain of the flu is more serious or deadly for adults or children. A typical flu season normally runs through March. It's possible that when it's all said and done, the season could end up being of average impact if the current surge in flu turns out to be an early spike in activity followed by a dropoff in cases.

“We're seeing a lot of flu-type illness coming in, no question about it,” said Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner. “But we don't know where this will end up. We'll have to see how this plays out.”

Though the CDC has said about 185 million Americans should get a flu shot each year, typically only 75 million people do. This year 83 million doses were prepared and it's likely all doses will be used up, which has never happened before.

Last year, 95 million doses were prepared, but 12 million doses went unused and had to be thrown out. Private companies make the U.S. flu vaccine supply, so they want to avoid losing money on unused supplies. Next year, the federal government might offer to cover the cost of any unused vaccine to encourage increased production, Dr. Gerberding said.

A flu shot clinic will be offered for high-risk individuals only, which includes the elderly, children 6 months through 23 months, and those with chronic diseases, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, 635 N. Erie St. The department has 400 doses of vaccine.

Toledo Children's Hospital, which also has 400 doses of vaccine, will offer a flu shot clinic for those 18 and younger from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Tuesday at the hospital's emergency department, 2142 N. Cove Blvd.



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