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Flu-Related Visits to Children’s Emergency Departments Increase 100 Percent

The number of children with the flu or influenza-like illnesses who visited Miami-area emergency departments last week surged more than 100 percent compared to the same week last year. With widespread flu remaining at the highest levels in nearly a decade, the 2,415 pediatric visits during the week ended February 3, 2018, accounted for 19 percent of children’s emergency center volume in Miami-Dade County, according to the latest data from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH).

Doctors’ advice to parents: Don’t wait to get your child treatment [1], and it’s not too late for children to get a flu shot.

“The type of flu sickening most people this year is associated with more severe illness in children and the elderly,” said Fernando Mendoza, M.D. [2], medical director of Baptist Children’s Hospital  [3]Emergency Center [4] and associate medical director of pediatric emergency services at West Kendall Baptist Hospital [5]. “Although we’re discovering this year’s flu vaccine is not necessarily as effective as prior years, immunization can still help prevent infection or lessen the symptoms if you get the flu.”

A total of 53 children across the country have died from the flu or influenza-like illness since flu season began last October, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [6].  About 80 percent of the children who have died from flu-related complications were not vaccinated.

The most common flu-related complication in children is pneumonia, says Dr. Mendoza. Children younger than 2 and those with a history of asthma, preexisting cardiac or neurological conditions are at the highest risk for complications.

The FDOH categorizes an “influenza-like illness” as a fever with either a cough or sore throat. Fever associated with the flu in children can range from low grade to very high, Dr. Mendoza says.

“Children with the flu can present with a myriad of symptoms. The most common are fever, vomiting, aches and upper respiratory symptoms,” he said. “If a child has difficulty breathing, multiple episodes of vomiting and can’t keep fluids down, parents should seek prompt medical attention.”

Treating Flu in Children

Most children being seen in the emergency department are receiving treatment and going home, according to Dr. Mendoza. Antiviral medication can be used to treat flu in children and babies as young as a few weeks old, he says. Deciding to use antiviral treatment varies according to a child’s symptoms and does not always require a flu test.

“If your healthcare provider decides to prescribe Tamiflu, the dosage will be based on the child’s age and weight and should be dispensed in liquid form,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Tamiflu can reduce the length and severity of illness, as well as lower transmission rates. Preventing the flu from spreading is especially important in homes with other young children or older family members.”

Good health habits, like covering your cough and washing your hands often, are also important in preventing the spread of infection from the flu, the CDC and healthcare professionals advise.

“Proper and frequent hand washing, especially after coming in contact with sick individuals or public spaces, is effective in avoiding getting the flu,” Dr. Mendoza adds.

Children (and adults) recovering from the flu or influenza-like illness are advised to stay home from school until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours. Resuming other activities, such as sports, may require more rest.

“We recommend returning to sports once the child has fully recovered his or her energy, rather than rushing to compete,” Dr. Mendoza says. “Children recovering from the flu need rest and fluids to rehydrate and regain the nutritional needs the flu depleted from their bodies. Soon enough most will be back to normal in a few days.”

Dr. Mendoza, who’s part of a special task force convened at Baptist Health to address the flu surge, expects this flu season to last into March. And yesterday some health officials predicted an active flu season through May. South Florida and other tropical locations can often have a prolonged flu season that lingers on and lasts well into the summer, Dr. Mendoza says.

“We’re ready to meet increasing volume demands of children with the flu,” Dr. Mendoza said. “Most importantly, we are able to recognize and treat any potential complications of influenza and influenza-like illness.”