Parents and guardians may be worried lately as the flu sweeps through homes, day-cares and schools, and reports of more children falling ill make headlines.
You may not be able to completely prevent a child’s exposure to influenza, but pediatricians and health experts say there are many ways to decrease their chances of getting sick and help them survive a bout with the virus with little incident.
“Don’t panic,” said Dr. Brittany Kerkar, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network. “You should feel comfortable calling your pediatrician as soon as you’re concerned about your child’s health.”
This flu season is one of the worst in the past decade. A federal report last week showed this season thus far is as bad as the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009.
The United States has had 63 pediatric flu deaths as of Feb. 3, and flu season could last until May.
In New Jersey, a 6-year-old girl from Hudson County died from the flu Monday in the state’s second pediatric fatality. A 4-year-old girl from central New Jersey was the first when she died in December.
Despite the scary numbers, health experts caution those cases are still rare, and many children can be successfully treated with rest, fluids and antiviral medications, if appropriate. Children also can practice frequent hand-washing to minimize their chances of catching the flu.
Kerkar said her Burlington office has seen a large spike in patient visits within the past few weeks. Providers have encouraged parents to call their pediatricians’ offices for help making decisions on treatment and where to go for care, whether it’s an office or an emergency room.
She said providers also can help parents distinguish whether their children have influenza or another common winter illness such as a respiratory virus, a cold, a stomach bug or strep throat.
“Everyone calls and not everyone may need to be seen in the office to get help and care. We can triage over the phone and then help parents make those decisions on where to go, so that they don’t panic and go straight to the ER,” she said.
Kerkar said children who get referred to emergency rooms, which can be overwhelmed, are often dehydrated, have difficulty breathing or have existing medical complications.
Most children can get treated at a pediatrician’s office, she said, and may receive antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu, which can help people recover , but does have some side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion and abnormal behavior.
Health-care professionals continue to recommend flu shots. The vaccine may not prevent a child from getting the flu, but it does decrease the severity of illness seen in many children who have died. People cannot get the flu from the vaccine because it does not contain live virus.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 80 percent of children who have died from the flu in past seasons were not vaccinated, and estimate that to be true for pediatric deaths this year.
Janelle Angelika and her husband, of Egg Harbor Township, are both teachers and said they are diligent in cleaning practices at school and at home. As prepared as they were, they couldn’t escape the flu this year. Their son and daughter fell ill, and Angelika recently had the virus. All have recovered or are recovering with the help of over-the-counter medications and Tamiflu, which initially made her daughter hallucinate, Angelika said.
Tracey Campbell House, of Galloway Township, has two children and owns Garden State Academy, a preschool and kindergarten facility. House said she contacted the county health department as soon as there were multiple cases.
House said she also immediately notified parents and even shut down the academy on a Friday for a cleaning service to do a deeper sweep and wipe out any lingering virus on surfaces, which resulted in a decline of absentees.
The risk of getting the flu, however, is never far away. Just the other day, House found herself riding in an ambulance with an infant who was having difficulty breathing, and said she didn’t want to take any chances.
“I hear people say, ‘What if I’m wrong?’ and really, I hope I am wrong, but you have to act. It’s a crazy time,” she said. “It’s about being vigilant, and we’ve encouraged families to keep them home when sick, give them adequate rest time, drink water and eat healthy.”