These three young mothers are the latest unlikely victims of the flu this season.
Katherine Acton, 47, Karlie Slaven, 36, and Tanya Harmon, 37, are all mothers-of-two who died this week just days after being diagnosed with the virus, having nursed their own children through the illness.
Earlier this month, 40-year-old mother-of-three and marathon runner Katie Oxley Thomas of California died within 48 hours of falling ill.
While influenza typically claims the lives of infants and the elderly, this year’s aggressive H3N2 strain has struck 18- to 49-year-olds harder than usual.
The hardest-hit unusual suspects are baby boomers (aged 50 to 64), but hospitalizations, illnesses and deaths far above average for all age groups for this time of year.
The panic is not overblown, according to Dr Richard Webby, who is part of the WHO team that develops each year’s flu vaccine and part of the infectious disease department at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Speaking to Daily Mail Online, he said it is as severe as it sounds, and there isn’t much a parent can do to protect themselves if their child gets sick, aside from cleaning their hands and getting the flu shot.
Ironically and tragically, he said, the strongest among us may be even more susceptible, since those with a fierce immune response could become more vulnerable to the mysterious and ever-changing virus.
Tragic: Katherine Acton, 47, of Alabama, died this week days after getting the flu. The bride-to-be, who was planning a fall wedding, is pictured with her sons Eason (left) and GT (right)
Caring mother: Karlie Slaven, 37, a university manager from Indiana, spent last week caring for her son and daughter as they battled the virus
Tandy Harmon, 36, was admitted to an Oregon hospital last Wednesday with flu symptoms, but by Friday she had developed additional pneumonia and MRSA and died
‘There does seem to be an excess in mortality in younger groups this year, but unfortunately no one really knows the answer [as to why],’ Dr Webby said.
‘It has happened before; look back at the 1918 similar phenomenon [the Spanish influenza epidemic], when healthy folks were succumbing to that disease.
‘It can have something to do with your immune response. There is some suggestion that those most healthy, most able to produce an immune response, suffer the most from that.
‘Your immune system keeps on doing its thing to try and get rid of that virus but in so doing, a lot of the immunological factors can be bad for you.’
When it comes to protecting themselves, Dr Webby conceded, parents don’t have many options ‘aside from the obvious’.
‘You could wear masks if you have someone in the household that is high risk, and obviously wash your hands.
‘Under special situations perhaps it’s possible to get some Tamiflu to protect against the flu – it’s meant for people who are sick but theoretically you could take it as a preventative measure.’
For the first time in the CDC’s 13 years of flu data, the virus is widespread in every state, bar Hawaii, and officials warn the outbreak is set to get worse before it gets better, despite hopes we had passed the peak.
Dr Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC’s Influenza Division, said he believes the pediatric death toll – currently at 37 – will climb to around 148 by the end of March, as we saw in 2014/15.
Dr Anthony Fauci, clinical immunologist at the National Institutes of Health, says the season will likely not be worse than 2014/15, but we won’t get a full perspective of the season until it’s over.
To brace the spread, schools in at least 11 states are closing to disinfect buildings and quarantine children at home.
Under-18s aren’t the only ones suffering: the rate of people with influenza-like illness (ILI) has rocketed past the rate of every other year except the unusual November pandemic of 2009 – even eclipsing the deadly 2014/15 season.
Hospitalizations are also far higher this year than 2014/15 for every age group except over-65s, who are always the hardest-hit.
Sharing the data on Friday, Dr Jernigan said he is now certain the outbreak is set to get worse this week, rather than dipping down like previous years, as every state bar Hawaii battles the aggressive strain.
The number of people with influenza-like illness this year (in red) has climbed past every other year, as demonstrated in this new graph from the CDC showing the red line spiking up
WHAT ARE THE FLU STRAINS HITTING THE US THIS YEAR?
There are many different strains of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen, or are set to emerge, in America this winter.
The vaccine is 34 percent effective against the H3N2 strain, however it will offer more protection from the new strains, H1N1 and B viruses, emerging in the next few weeks.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year. In the past it was only commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time this winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just four confirmed cases.
He insisted it is not too late to get the flu shot, and urges everyone to do so – but dismissed concerns that pharmacies across the US have run dry of vaccines and medications, insisting providers need to work harder to find the materials.
There were 11,965 new laboratory-confirmed cases last week, bringing the season total to 86,527.
There were 41.9 hospitalizations for every 100,000 people.
This year’s outbreak is typically compared to last year’s and 2014/15, which were also ‘H3N2 years’, meaning the most aggressive flu strain known to the US – H3N2 – is dominant.
The H1N1 strain (known as ‘swine flu’) is also widespread this year.
The combination of the two is crippling the US this season.
This is largely to do with the fact that the vaccine doesn’t protect well against H3N2 and the hardest-hit age group – people over 50 – were not exposed to the virus as children, because it arrived in the US for the first time in 1968, meaning their immune response is weak.
The CDC does not count adult deaths, but Dr Jernigan said he expects figures to be similar to the 2014/15 year, when 32 million people contracted the flu, 16 million had to go to the ER, and 710,000 had lengthier hospital stays.
During most flu seasons, older people have been hit the hardest, followed by very young children.
But during this flu season, baby boomers, or those aged 50-64, have been the hardest hit after seniors.
‘Baby boomers have higher rates (of hospitalization) than their grandchildren right now,’ Dr Jernigan told reporters on a conference call.
He said influenza activity had begun to taper off in some parts of the United States, particularly in California and other states on the West Coast, but the season was far from over.
Flu activity ‘remains high for most of the US, while some areas are still writhing,’ he said.
Indeed, this season may feel more severe than in prior years.
‘We often see different parts of the country light up at different times,’ said Jernigan, ‘but for the past three weeks, the entire county has been experiencing lots of flu, all at the same time.’
Dr Jernigan insisted everyone should get their flu shot to best protect themselves from the virus.
However, scores of pharmacies have run out, and told Daily Mail Online they will not be re-stocking.
The flu shot is 30 percent effective against preventing the most common strain of the virus, H3N2, that is dubbed the ‘Aussie flu’ and responsible for the devastating 2014 flu season.
However, the shot is more effective in preventing B strains and the H1N1 virus that are just beginning to emerge.
‘Getting the flu shot can help prevent the flu and reduce the intensity of the illness if one comes down with it – highly recommended to anyone without a contraindication to receive it!’ Dr Brian Secemsky, an internist at One Medical in San Francisco, told Daily Mail Online.
‘Supporting one’s immune system with good rest and adequate hydration may help reduce the severity of symptoms.’
‘Washing hands often, wearing masks, and staying home from work during periods of fever can help reduce the transmission of the virus,’ he added.
THE AMERICAN VICTIMS WHO DIED OF THE FLU THIS SEASON
Katharine Gallagher, 27, died on December 5, 2017, in her Tustin, California, home.
The Boston University graduate started experiencing flu-like symptoms on Thursday night and went to the doctor on Sunday where was sent home with antibiotics.
Two days later her boyfriend came home to find her dead on the bathroom floor after she appeared to be getting better that morning .
She had caught severe acute bronchial pneumonia.
Jonah Smith, 17, died December 29, 2017, when his heart stopped beating in the backseat of his sister’s car.
His family said he showed no flu-like symptoms except he had complained of a backache, but continued to go to work at a fast-food restaurant and see friends.
After his death, doctors confirmed that the teen from Arizona had the flu and pneumonia and believe he may have suffered from an underlying medical condition, though he was never known to have one.
Kyler Baughmen, 21, became sick on December 23, 2017, with a mild cough and runny nose.
The body builder celebrated Christmas and went back to work December 26, but the following day was rushed to the hospital.
He died on December 28 from kidney failure due to septic shock caused by the flu.
Katie Oxley Thomas, 40, of San Jose, California, died of the flu just 48 hours of falling ill.
The mother-of-three and marathon runner’s condition declined so quickly that she was moved to intensive care, placed on life support and died all in the span of 15 hours on January 4, 2018.
Her family said she had received her flu shot before getting sick.
Jenny Ching, 51, went to the hospital in Massachusetts with flu-like symptoms.
After being diagnosed with the flu she developed an infection and pneumonia.
The mother-of-two died on January 6, 2018, just a week after being diagnosed.
Jonah Rieben, four, died on January 6, 2018, just hours after first showing symptoms, making him the first child to die from the flu in Ohio this season.
The boy who loved to play with his 16 adoptive siblings was born with Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes heart defects and developmental delays. Doctors are still investigating if his condition contributed to his death.
Jonah’s older brother, who also suffers from a disorder, is in the hospital with a severe case of the flu.
Nico Mallozzi, 10, of New Canaan in Connecticut, had been sick and bed-bound all weekend during the hockey tournament in Buffalo, New York, forcing him to miss every game.
Eventually, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with Influenza B, which had developed into pneumonia and caused sepsis.
He died on Sunday January 14, 2018, in a Buffalo hospital.
Zainab Momin, a third-grader of Montgomery, Alabama, died on Tuesday January 16, 2018.
She died in hospital the day her school was closed due to snowy weather.
More details are pending about her specific case and symptoms.
She is the first child to die of the flu in Alabama this season.
Emily Grace Muth, six, was killed by the flu on Friday January 19, 2018.
She first fell ill on that Tuesday and went to urgent care where she received Tamiflu.
By Friday her breathing was labored and her mother called the ambulance but they said to keep her hydrated and she would be okay within a week.
Hours later she stopped breathing and died.
Tandy Harmon, a 36-year-old mother-of-two in Oregon died on Friday, January 19, 2018.
She went to the hospital with flu symptoms on Wednesday, but was told to go home to rest and hydrate.
Hours later, Harmon was back in the emergency room, where she quickly declined and had to be placed on life support by that evening.
Harmon had developed MRSA and pneumonia and died two days later.
Lily Kershaw, 5, died of the flu on January 22 in Nebraska.
She was the first child to die of flu-related causes in the state so far this season, although there have been 21 adult fatalities so far.
More details are pending about her specific case and symptoms.
Dylan Winnik, 12, died of the flu on Tuesday January 23, 2018.
He fell ill two days earlier and his parents thought he had the common cold because his symptoms were mild.
The seventh-grader died two days later.
Dylan is the first flu death in Palm Beach County, Florida, this season