Flu Kills Quickly, Taking Lives of 100 Healthy Children Annually

PHOTO: Austin Booth, a high school scholar-athlete from Rifle, Colo., died at 17 from the flu.

In just eight months at his new school in Rifle, Colo., Austin Booth made a name for himself as a star athlete, honor student and a popular classmate with a promising future.

But within six days after he contracted the flu last January, Austin was dead. He was 17. His parents had never even considered giving a flu shot to their otherwise healthy teen.

"It was flu season and we knew other kids who were sick and we didn't think that much about it," said his mother, Regina Booth, 42. "He was a healthy teenager."

"He was just one of those kids that excelled at everything," she said. "And he was the type of kid who made friends instantly."

"It was pretty tough -- and it seems like just yesterday," said Booth, who is 38 weeks pregnant and now annually immunizes her four other children, aged 3 to 16.

"Now that we are expecting a new baby, it protects us and the baby," she said.

Debunking Four of the Most Common Flu Shot Myths

Between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans die of influenza each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.More than 200,000 are hospitalized annually with flu-related complications like pneumonia.

In the past four years, the CDC has changed its recommendations and now urges all Americans six months and older get a flu shot. Children under the age of 9, who are getting immunized for the first time, should get two doses, one month apart.

Booth said she still cannot believe how sudden her son's death was. On Tuesday night, he had started and played a full basketball game. By Wednesday night, he was coughing up blood and was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia.

"They intubated him as he struggled to breathe," said his mother. "It was the last time I talked to him."

His father Carl, who worked on an oil rig and couldn't be reached, was never able to see his son conscious again. Austin was airlifted to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction and at first, doctors thought he would survive.

But soon, his condition got worse -- even on "every antibiotic in the world" -- and Austin had to be taken off the ventilator and manually "bagged." Tests showed the teen positive for the virulent infection MRSA.

"Doctor's said it was a perfect storm of pneumonia and MRSA," said Booth. "He fought Thursday until Monday, but it was more than his body could handle."

Hundreds of Austin's new friends showed up for his funeral. The basketball team retired his #2 jersey and Austin was recognized with a school bench and a memory stone.

"We had never gotten the flu shot -- not any of us," she said. "We thought, we don't need it, we are healthy. If we get the shot it will make us sick."

Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said that people are fooled into thinking that influenza, a serious respiratory infection, is just like a cold.

"People use the word 'flu' very casually to refer to a whole variety of winter illnesses, including a stuffy nose, and that tends to trivialize it," said Schaffner. "It is a serious viral infection -- it wreaks havoc on all the body's systems."

"Although it can be mild and often is, it is often very, very serious and can strike an otherwise normal child and put them in intensive care, usually within 48 hours."

The most serious complications occur among older people, but each year children die of the disease -- and "it's potentially preventable," according to Schaffner.

"While it is an imperfect vaccine, it is the best influenza vaccine at the present time," he said. Though it does not always prevent infection, because viruses change each year, it can "turn a more serious flu into a milder one, so you won't die."

With 120 million doses given each year in the U.S. alone, it is a "wonderfully safe" vaccine, whose only side effects can be a sore arm or, rarely, a day of fever. It cannot give a person the flu. "That's an urban myth," said Schaffner.

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