The 2023-2024 flu season has proven to be one of the worst in recent memory, especially for children, with pediatric cases and deaths skyrocketing across the country over the past several weeks. As hospitals fill up and health officials scramble to curb the spread, the crisis highlights the importance of prevention through vaccination.
Pediatric Flu Hospitalizations and Deaths Hit Record Highs
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that there have been at least 44 pediatric flu deaths so far this season – higher at this point than any season in over a decade. Tragically, five new child deaths were reported just this week.
In addition to the rising death toll, the number of children hospitalized with flu complications has hit staggering levels, with many hospitals struggling to accommodate the surge.
“We are seeing record high flu volumes that are straining hospital capacity,” said Dr. Esther Choo, professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
While the influenza A H3N2 strain circulating this year disproportionately impacts the elderly, rates of infection and serious outcomes in children under five are much higher than a typical flu season.
Doctors describe children arriving at hospitals with high fevers upwards of 104 or 105 degrees Fahrenheit, extreme dehydration, and dangerous drops in blood pressure that can precede shock. Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, has also emerged as a rare but life-threatening flu complication in some pediatric patients.
Universal Flu Vaccine Could Have Reduced Severity
Public health experts believe that low flu vaccination rates have exacerbated the crisis. Only 58% of children received a flu shot this season, down significantly from early autumn rates.
“If we had achieved higher coverage of flu vaccine, I really do think that some of the deaths and hospitalizations could have been prevented,” said Dr. José R. Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
While the flu virus mutates quickly, making it difficult to develop perfectly matched vaccines from year to year, researchers have been making progress towards a “universal” flu shot that could provide broad protection across strains. Such a vaccine could have reduced the severity of the current season.
Unfortunately, no such vaccine has been approved for use yet. Health officials continue to recommend annual flu shots with vaccines targeted to circulating strains as the best available protection.
Shortage of Pediatric Beds and Medications Adds Strain
The swelling wave of sick children has overwhelmed pediatric units across the country, with some hospitals resorting to treating patients in hallways or repurposed conference rooms.
A national shortage of pediatric hospital beds that existed even before flu season began has exacerbated capacity issues. Additionally, high demand has led to spot shortages of fever reducers and other medications used to treat flu symptoms.
“We are seeing some sporadic shortages for the oral forms of Tylenol and ibuprofen suspension drops,” said Erin Fox, senior pharmacy director at University of Utah Health. “We have enough supply but it’s running very low.”
In response to capacity crunches, some children’s hospitals have implemented crisis standards of care, postponing non-urgent surgeries and directing EMS to divert patients to other facilities when pediatric beds fill up.
Looking Ahead: When Will Flu Cases Peak?
Flu season typically ramps up in October and November, peaks in February, and tapers off by late March or April. However, the early and rapid spike in severe pediatric cases has doctors concerned about what the next few months may bring.
Forecasting models show flu activity continuing to increase over the next month in most regions, likely peaking in late February. However, the season could drag on longer than usual given the amount of susceptible people still unexposed.
In the meantime, health officials are imploring the public to get vaccinated if they have not already. It takes about two weeks after receiving a flu shot for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection.
They also advise common sense flu prevention strategies like washing hands frequently, covering coughs, staying home when sick, and avoiding contact with symptomatic people. Such simple measures can go a long way towards flattening the curve.
While this flu season has proven especially challenging so far, public health experts remain hopeful that collective action can still make a difference.
“It’s not too late to get your flu shot,” said Dr. José R. Romero. “We need to pull together, just as we have done with this COVID pandemic.”
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.