The Washington Post published an interesting article in its weekly health section on March 2. 2021. The article had an impactful graphic using data from the Centers for Disease Control that showed the number of pediatric deaths due to influenza over the last four years.
Of course, this was a flu season and year unlike any other. In 2020, around mid-March, Americans became aware of a newly discovered coronavirus variation that was far more infectious and more deadly than the yearly strain of influenza.
The new awareness of COVID-19 raised the potential of incredible risk for anybody exposed to the virus, particularly for elderly individuals and those with certain underlying illnesses. The average age of individuals who died in China as a result of the virus was 82. What appeared encouraging was that children seemed to have milder cases and far fewer were dying. As of February 11, 241 kids died from COVID-19, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. That was approximately .04% of the total deaths recorded in the United States from COVID-19. Of course, there is some squabbling about the diagnosis recorded at the time of some deaths, but overall, most of us agree that the half-million deaths due to COVID-19 is a staggering and very sad number.
When the public was made aware of the risk of transmitting the virus and the far-reaching measures of social distancing, closing schools, and lock-down, most Americans willingly complied. After all, they became aware, for the first time, of the risk of aerosolized viral particles present in theatres, churches, restaurants, and classrooms. But we physicians already knew that. We knew that when we went into the operating room or the bedside to repair a laceration in the emergency department, we wore masks to protect our patients from the microorganisms living in our noses and mouths. We already knew that the spread of norovirus and other food-borne illness can be mitigated by the use of hand-washing and the use of sanitizing cleaners. Physicians already knew that the world was a rather naïve and scary place in terms of infectious disease.
The public, however, was never told of the risks of exposure to infectious diseases or perhaps they failed to comprehend or grew apathetic to the levels of risk. Parents of school-aged children were suddenly afraid to send their kids to school. Their fears stemmed from the threat to the health of their children and the threat that their children might be asymptomatic carriers that could bring the virus home to older and more vulnerable relatives. Parents of teens and college-aged kids seemed to think that their children faced very few threats to their lives before COVID. Did they not know or recall that in 2013, there were 1748 suicides among people 15 to 19 years old? The rate of death from suicide is second to those lost to blunt and penetrating trauma. You see, there has always been a significant risk of children dying. Perhaps we did not work hard enough to get the message to you. Perhaps your attention was diverted, and you forgot.
That’s OK, moms and dads of America, we love you anyway.
The good news is that only one influenza-related death in a child has been reported for this year. Is it closed schools, wearing masks, improved vaccination rates or social distancing? Is it the way that the cause of death is reported? We don’t really know yet. But wait, did you see that graphic in the Washington Post? Last year, 195 children died of influenza.
The year before that 144, and the year before that 188 children died!
Almost 200 families lost their precious child to influenza when they all thought that it was safe to sit 25 to a classroom, or eat packed together in the cafeteria, play competitive basketball or attend a school chorus concert. You thought it was safe.
Moms and dads of America, there was always risk. You just weren’t aware of it. You were worried about sun exposure, bee stings, and concussions. Those are also very scary things. In the future, we will be hyper-aware of hand-washing, covering our mouths when we cough and staying home when we feel viral symptoms. Once you know about the high pediatric death rate from influenza, you can’t unknow. Please protect our kids from influenza with as much vigilance as you showed against COVID-19.
Physicians spread the word. We can’t afford to lose 195 kids next year from a highly preventable viral infection just because we forgot what we knew.
Joan Naidorf is an emergency physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com