It doesn’t matter if you run marathons or play sports, when it comes to the flu, no one is completely immune.
That’s the warning families of flu victims and health officials are hoping to spread throughout this year’s flu season as the epidemic continues to plague the U.S.
The flu is now widespread in every state except Hawaii and it has claimed the lives of at least 30 children, according to the CDC’s latest report. California is being hit particularly hard, with reports of at least 74 deaths of people under the age of 65 in the state since October.
The virus that’s predominating this year is Influenza A (H3N2), and that tends to be more severe. It affects the elderly and the very young, epidemiologist Lynnette Brammer, who leads the CDC’s Domestic Influenza Surveillance Team, told Fox News.
But the flu can hit anyone.
“Sadly, we hear every year of people that were previously healthy and active and they get influenza and die and for reasons we don’t understand,” Brammer said. “[But] if you get sick and you’re not getting better…call your doctor.”
Brammer says we’re getting “pretty close” to the peak of flu season, but flu activity is likely to continue for several more weeks.
As the nation continues to fight the illness, some families are sharing their stories in hopes of preventing others from facing similar tragedies.
“We want to…make a change in some way,” Keila Lino, the mother of 12-year-old flu victim Alyssa Alcaraz, told Fox News. “It’s not fair. We know it’s not fair. We don’t want revenge. We want changes.”
Read Lino’s story and those of other victims lost this year because of the flu.
Lily Kershaw, 5
Lily Kershaw, 5, died of flu-related complications on Jan. 21. She’s the first child to die from the flu in Nebraska this year, according to health officials.
“We started seeing increased flu activity earlier than usual this year and flu continues to circulate at very high levels,” Dr. Tom Safranek, state epidemiologist for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said in a statement following the girl’s death. “During a severe flu season, we see more illness, hospitalizations and sadly more deaths.”
Kershaw’s school, Twin River Kindergarten in Silver Creek, Nebraska, confirmed the girl’s death in a Facebook post.
“Heaven gained a beautiful angel this morning,” the Facebook post read. “Lily was a smart, kind, and loving little girl. She had a passion for learning and always shared her big smile or a hug with anyone in need of one.”
While the nation is facing an unusually severe flu season, health officials say flu-related deaths in the state are rare.
“So far, there have been a total of 22 flu-related deaths statewide – 21 adults and one child,” DHHS says.
Emily Muth, 6
When Emily Muth started feeling sick, her parents took her to an urgent care location, where she tested positive for the flu.
The doctor handed the 6-year-old’s mother, Rhonda, a prescription for Tamiflu, an anti-viral medication, and told the little girl to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Three days after her flu diagnosis, Muth started to have difficulty breathing. Her mom called an ambulance.
A paramedic who arrived at the house told Rhonda labored breathing was a side effect of the flu. It wasn’t cause for concern.
“He asked us you know, ‘We can take her.’ And, you know, they’re the medical personnel,” Rhonda told WTVD. “I trust what they know. And they said she was fine.”
But she wasn’t.
Hours later, Muth’s breathing got worse.
“She was breathing a little bit heavier. And all of sudden she just raised up and went back down,” Rhonda described. “I went, ‘Emily, Emily.’ And I noticed she wasn’t breathing.”
Again, Rhonda called 911. But it was too late.
By the time the ambulance reached WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, Muth was gone. The 6-year-old died on Jan. 19.
“This flu is no joke and didn’t have to happen,” Rhonda wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise money for her daughter’s funeral. “Please, all of you who have children, please hold them tight and [at the] first sign of flu get them to the ER.”
Nico Mallozzi, 10
Nico Mallozzi started feeling sick before participating in The Cup North American Championship hockey tournament in Buffalo, New York.
The 10-year-old from New Canaan, Conn., reportedly left the tournament early, and was later rushed to a hospital, where he died on Jan. 13.
The fourth-grader’s death was a result of “Flu type B that was complicated by pneumonia,” a medical examiner confirmed to Fox 61 two days after the boy’s death.
Dr. Bryan Luizzi, superintendent of New Canaan Public Schools, sent a letter home to parents memorializing Mallozzi and urging students to get the flu vaccine recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“Nico was a wonderful, enthusiastic, outgoing boy who was known school-wide for his high spirits, limitless energy and quick smile,” Luizzi wrote in the letter, which was posted on the school’s website Monday. “We will miss Nico terribly, and will always cherish our memories of him as a vibrant, fun-loving boy.”
Dylan Winnik, 12
When Dylan Winnik told his parents he felt sick, they thought he had a cold.
They had no idea how serious the 12-year-old Florida boy’s illness was until it was too late.
By the time deputies with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department arrived at the home of the seventh-grader’s father on Jan. 23, Winnik was dead, the Palm Beach Post reported.
Now Winnik’s family is sharing their story about the boy, who they say did not receive a flu shot this year, to encourage others to take the illness seriously this season.
“Please implore other parents to not take the flu lightly whatsoever,” Mike Medwin, the boy’s mother’s partner, told the Post.
Alyssa Alcaraz, 12
Four days before her death, Alyssa Alcaraz was diagnosed with the flu and sent home from a local urgent care with some nausea medicine and cough syrup.
But the 12-year-old girl’s health continued to deteriorate over the next four days. She became lethargic and had trouble breathing.
Her mom, Keila Lino, took her back to urgent care, where she was told her oxygen levels were low and was transported to a nearby hospital.
Hours after arriving at the hospital, Alcaraz went into cardiac arrest and died on Dec. 17.
It wasn’t until days later, that Lino learned her daughter’s death was a result of septic shock from a strep infection in her blood – an infection she had no idea her daughter was suffering from.
“I know right now with the flu season clinics, hospitals, everyone is just busy and assuming that’s what everyone has,” Lino said. “But it’s more than that. In order for us to know, with simple blood work, it could have been caught. Something so simple.”
Alani Murrieta, 20
The Arizona mom, who had a 2-year-old and 6-month-old, left work early after feeling sick.
“Monday she was still feeling sick, so her sister took her to urgent care, her and her kids,” Stephanie Gonzales, the woman’s aunt, told Fox 10. “They diagnosed them with the flu, sent her home with flu meds.”
The next day, Murietta took a turn for the worse. Her mom rushed her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, placed on a ventilator and pronounced dead within hours on Nov. 28.
“Never in a million years would we have thought we would have lost her that day like this,” Gonzales told the news outlet.
Kyler Baughman, 21
As an avid bodybuilder, a chiseled Kyler Baughman was the picture of health.
So, when the 21-year-old from Pittsburgh said he felt too sick to exercise, his family knew something was wrong.
Baughman came home early from work one night with a mild cough.
“He kinda just laid down and went about his day, and that was the day he was coughing and said his chest hurt,” his fiancée, Olivia Marcanio, told WPXI.
Nearly 48 hours later, Baughman was taken to the emergency room and airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he died of organ failure caused by septic shock from the flu, Baughman’s family said.
Katharine Gallagher, 27
When Katharine Gallagher fell ill with the flu, she planned to just sleep it off.
But as time passed, the 27-year-old’s symptoms only got worse.
So, she decided to go to urgent care, where she was given fluids and antibiotics. Two days later, on Dec. 5, she was dead.
“The next thing we know, we got a call from her boyfriend…saying that it was bad and the paramedics were there,” Katharine’s mom, Liz, told KTLA. “And so after about 10 minutes, he said to me, ‘They’ve called it’ — worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Gallagher’s sudden death was a result of severe acute bronchial pneumonia — a complication caused by the flu, her mom said.
Now Liz is warning others who catch the flu this season to seek treatment early.
“Young people just think they’re invincible, and most of them don’t want to pay what it costs now to go to doctors,” she told KTLA. “Life is short…nobody ever thinks it will happen to them.”
Tandy Harmon, 36
Tandy Harmon skipped a shopping trip with her friend because she was starting to feel under the weather.
The 36-year-old single mother of two assumed she had a simple case of the flu. Harmon planned to sleep it off, but she went to the hospital to get herself checked out as a precaution.
Doctors confirmed the mom from Gresham, Ore., had the flu and sent her home to rest and hydrate.
Two hours later, Harmon’s boyfriend, Brad Fauts, drove her back to the hospital. Her symptoms were getting more severe.
“[They] immediately put her on a ventilator and from there she just went downhill,” Fauts told Fox 12. “By that evening, she was on life support.”
Within two days, Harmon was dead.
Doctors told Fauts her organs shut down as a result of pneumonia and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – an infection caused by staph bacteria that’s resistant to several antibiotics – which she developed while her body was vulnerable from the flu.
Now Fauts is sharing Harmon’s story to warn even the healthiest people to be vigilant this flu season.
“Don’t mess around with this flu,” warned Fauts. “If you feel something wrong in your body, go to the doctor and insist that they see you.”
Karlie Illg Slaven, 37
Karlie Illg Slaven was constantly on the move as she cared for her two kids and husband, who were all home sick with the flu.
By the end of the week, the 37-year-old mom also started to feel ill.
“Karli had to take care of all of them and she got kind of run down and tired,” Slaven’s father, Karl Illg, told Fox 59.
Slaven went to a walk-in clinic for an exam. She was told she had the flu and was sent home to rest.
The next day, Slaven had some trouble breathing. So, she went to a hospital in Hendricks County, Indiana, to take some tests.
“They took x-rays and her lungs were clear. But, she did have the flu and was still struggling to take deep breaths,” Illg said.
Again, Slaven headed home.
But her breathing only continued to get worse and she was rushed to the emergency room, where she died 24 hours later, on Jan. 21. Doctors said her death was a result of pneumonia, a complication from the flu.
“I never even got a chance to talk to her again,” Illg said.
Unlike her kids and husband, Slaven didn’t get the flu shot this year, Illg said.
“Even if it only gives you a 10 to 20 percent edge to fight off the flu, that 10 to 20 percent might have saved Karlie’s life,” Illg said. “It is one of those things that we are all going to have to wonder about. What if.”
Katie Denise Oxley Thomas, 40
With three kids, Katie Oxley Thomas was always running around. And on top of that, somehow the San Jose mother also squeezed in marathons and the occasional yoga session.
Her family never expected she would die from the flu.
“It was very shocking for us. We just thought she was going to leave the hospital in a couple of days and come home,” Thomas’ stepmother, Adrienne Oxley, told KTVU.
But on Jan. 4, just four days after she was diagnosed, Thomas died. Doctors said the flu lead to pneumonia, and Thomas’ death was a result of septic shock.
“The one doctor said I’ve never seen anything progress like this. He said this is just incredible,” Thomas’ father, Walt, told the news station. “Most of us get the flu and recover from it and a handful of people every year don’t. And you just don’t think it’s going to be your daughter. But you really want to take it serious.”