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The flu season has been especially rough on little ones this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than half of influenza cases in the 2019–2020 flu season have been seen in kids and people under the age of 25 years old. In past years, this under-25 demographic has generally only accounted for less than half of documented flu cases.
Tragically, 68 children have already died this flu season, and the CDC has released a Health Alert Network (HAN) advisory to the medical community in order to alert them to these rising numbers of pediatric influenza cases.
According to Andi L. Shane, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, flu season is especially hard on kids this season because of the prevalence of influenza B.
Influenza B consists of two strains, Victoria and Yamagata, with the former being the predominant culprit this flu season. The reason that kids are being so hard hit this season is that Victoria has been largely inactive for the past few years, meaning that the younger population has not been able to build up an immunity to it.
And it turns out many experts feared this was coming.
“We had a paucity of influenza B last year, so we may have anticipated community immunity would be low,” epidemiologist Danuta Skowronski, MD, MHSc, tells CIDRAP News, explaining why she’s been warning clinicians about the return of the influenza B strain.
“My concern was we had not seen influenza B/Victoria make a strong showing since the 2015–2016 season. So immunity to that virus would be low.”
In addition, a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published by the CDC, which studied flu cases in Lousiana, confirms that influenza B hits children the hardest. According to the report, this strain of influenza B is the most commonly reported influenza virus reported among those under the age of 25.
“Although most illnesses were uncomplicated,” says the report, “the number of hospitalizations, clinical complications, and the reported pediatric death in Louisiana serve as a reminder that, even though influenza B viruses are less common than influenza A viruses in most seasons, influenza B virus infection can be severe in children.”
The report stresses the fact that it is not too late to get vaccinated this season.
There are other things you can do to help you to reduce your risk, and your children’s risk, of contracting the flu. Regular handwashing is crucial. You should also discourage kids from touching their eyes, nose or mouth, and to sneeze and cough into their elbow or into a tissue rather than directly into their hands.
“Soap and water, as well as alcohol-based hand sanitizer, will keep hands clean but, it is also important to disinfect hard surfaces where the virus can linger for days,” says Winston. “Be sure little hands are cleaned and door handles, handrails, remote controls and telephones are also cleaned. Children’s toys should be washed in warm soap and water or run through the dishwasher when possible.”
Gustavo Ferrer, MD, FCCP, pulmonologist and founder of the Cleveland Clinic’s Florida Cough Clinic, Interstitial Lung Disease and president of Intensive Care Experts, says that using a nasal spray like Xlear is a wise way to reduce flu risk as well. Such sprays contain xylitol, which can prevent bacteria from forming in the nose while keeping the nasal passage moisturized and comfortable.
“I recommend everyone use a saline spray that has xylitol in it, not just an ordinary saline spray,” says Ferrer. “It is safe for kids, and you can use it twice a day every day as a hygiene tool. Keep it next to your toothbrush and when you brush your teeth, use [it].”
It might also be helpful to use books to help explain the concept of germs to kids. Books like “Germs Are Not for Sharing” (Elizabeth Verdick), “What are Germs?” (Katie Daynes) and “A Germ’s Journey (Follow It!)” by Thom Rooke, M.D. are great places to start.
Or watch this animated video from the Saskatchewan Health Authority to help explain to kids how germs spread:
Have your kids caught the bug yet this season?