Last Flu Season Was Mild, But Child Deaths Worrying

By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter
Friday, August 10, 2007; 12:00 AM

FRIDAY, Aug. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Although the 2006-07 flu season was comparatively mild in the United States, it still claimed the lives of 68 children, and experts say more must be done to reduce the death toll.

They're especially concerned about the steady rise in a potentially lethal combination of infection with flu and drug-resistant staphylococcus, or "staph."

"While waiting to see what this year will bring, we should all plan to roll our sleeves up and get vaccinated and in no way let our guard down," said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University School of Medicine's Prevention Research Center.

In a report released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts said the 2006-07 flu season peaked in mid-February. And there were actually fewer pediatric deaths and fewer children hospitalized with influenza than in the past three flu seasons, according to the CDC.

But, among the 68 children whose deaths were associated with flu from Oct. 1, 2006, to May 19, 2007, 21 had influenza plusStapholococcus aureus("staph") that was resistant to a leading antibiotic, methicillin, according to the report in the Aug. 10 issue of the CDC'sMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In comparison, only one child died from flu coupled withS. aureusinfection in 2004 through 2005, and three died during the 2005-06 season, the CDC said.

"We are looking into the number of deaths of children combined with staff bacterial infection," said Dr. Joe Bresee, CDC's chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch in the Influenza Division. "From our perspective, it looks like it has increased."

Bresee said the CDC isn't sure if the number of deaths is actually rising, or the increase is due to better reporting. "The actual risk to kids from this is not known, but it is concerning," he said.

Bresee thinks that increasing the number of young children who get flu shots is key to reducing the problem. "They would be less likely to get influenza and, therefore, less likely to get co-infections withS. aureus," he said.

Despite the troubling news that such dual infections may be on the rise, the past season's flu statistics were relatively positive, Katz said.

"Data from the last flu season provide mostly good news," he said. "The number of cases was never unusually high. The strains were mostly of the expected varieties, and vaccine composition was just right. The death toll from complications of influenza was a bit lower than average."

The reasons for the milder flu season aren't clear, said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. "It could be increased surveillance and improved care and more awareness of what influenza can do," he said. "It may also be a less virulent strain of the virus."

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