By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009
The flu-related deaths of two Maryland teenagers in the past two weeks have prompted health officials across the region to urge people of all ages to get flu shots if they haven't already.
Zachary Weiland, 15, of Woodbine in Howard County died Sunday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and Ian M. Willis, 13, of Urbana in Frederick County died Feb. 19 at Children's National Medical Center in the District, health officials said.
There is no indication that this is a significantly worse flu season than in prior years, health officials said. But officials at the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks flu outbreaks, note that more than six weeks into the flu season, the number of infections is beginning to increase. CDC officials said there are widespread infections in Virginia and Maryland but only localized cases of infections in the District.
"It looks like from our disease surveillance data that we are just easing into the beginning of the flu season in Montgomery County," said Carol Jordan, director of communicable disease and epidemiology for Montgomery. Last year, the number of infections peaked in mid-March, she said, and, given current data, she expects a similar trend this season.
Virginia officials said flu season there had peaked and appeared to be tapering off.
The parents of the two Maryland boys said they did not think their sons were any sicker than they had been during previous bouts with the flu.
Robert Willis said they had no reason to believe anything was out of the ordinary when Ian began complaining of aches and tiredness Feb. 13. The next day, his temperature spiked, but after taking Tylenol, the fever dissipated. The next day, however, Ian began having trouble breathing, his father said, and his parents took him to a Frederick emergency room. He was later transferred to Children's Hospital, where he died.
"It was so sudden," Willis said. "I heard it was the same with the other boy."
A memorial service was held for Ian on Monday. He was an eighth-grade honor roll student at Urbana Middle School at Ijamsville, loved animals and people and had recently taken up fencing after watching it during the Olympics, his father said.
A memorial service for Zachary, who was a sophomore at Mount Airy Christian Academy, will be held tomorrow, said his father, Kirk Weiland.
Zachary loved basketball, baseball and soccer and after several years of playing the piano had taken up the guitar, his father said. Zachary often played during worship services at his church and was part of the chapel band at his school.
The teenager had a sore throat and was coughing when he was taken to Howard County General Hospital. He was later transferred to Johns Hopkins, where he fell into a coma and died Sunday.
"It was terrible," said Zachary's grandmother, Fran Weiland. "It was so sudden."
Last year, the CDC said that 78 people younger than 18 died from the flu. Even so, the head of Howard's health department said such deaths are uncommon.
"This is very unusual," Peter Beilenson, Howard's health officer, said of Zachary's case. "This was a healthy, athletic kid."
This year, the CDC has reported nine pediatric deaths as of Feb. 20, not including the two Maryland cases. Maryland officials said one young person died of flu last year.
D.C. area schools said they have not had an unusually high number of absences, but at least one Baltimore area elementary school, Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Towson, canceled classes this week because many students were reporting flu symptoms.
Area health officials said the deaths are a reminder that people should get a flu shot or use the flu mist, and most counties report that they have an ample supply. People should contact their local health department for information. People can also stay healthy by practicing good hygiene: washing their hands and covering their sneezes and coughs by using the crook of the arm, for example.
Beilenson said that a prolonged fever, difficulty breathing, confusion, irritability or a bluish tint to the lips or nails might indicate a more serious infection and that someone with those symptoms should see a doctor.
Frances Phillips, Maryland's deputy secretary for public health, said this year's vaccine is particularly effective against most strains of the flu. "It is not too late now for people to get a flu shot," she said.