Students vaccinated in school for influenza

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott, Elizabeth Scussel | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published November 10, 2014

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — Alana Yaksich was a perfectly healthy kindergartner.

She woke up the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, feeling “under the weather,” but didn’t experience any severe symptoms at the time, said her father, Zachary Yaksich, of West Bloomfield.

“I remember specifically, there was a snowstorm that day. We went out and made a snowman, her brothers and I. She felt better as the day went on,” Zachary said.

The rest of the evening was pretty standard.

Alana ate pizza and ice cream for dinner, and went to bed. But within hours, she woke up with a 106-degree fever, and Zachary, who checked her temperature with two thermometers, called an ambulance to take her to the hospital.

The paramedics were unsuccessful at lowering Alana’s fever, and she ended up in the pediatric intensive care unit, where she suffered convulsions and fell into a coma.

“It was after that, in less than 24 hours, that the doctors told us that (the influenza) attacked her brain. None of my children were vaccinated at that time. They didn’t fall (in) the age recommendation; our pediatrician never recommend it,” Zachary said.

Influenza is a viral respiratory illness. Its symptoms mimic the common cold but are generally worse. Symptoms include fever, body aches, fatigue and a dry cough.

Dr. Beth Swartz, a pediatrician at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, said older children and adults typically experience eye, head and back pain, and a fever that can last a week or more. Some may experience vomiting or diarrhea, but it doesn’t persist, she said. Influenza then segways into a respiratory illness before it finally disappears.

“It’s very unpredictable, as far as the degree to which any person is going to be affected, especially with kids,” Swartz said, adding that even healthy kids can experience horrible consequences.

Last year, 100 children in the U.S. died from influenza, and more than half were healthy kids without known physical risk factors, Swartz said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 200,000 people are hospitalized from the illness each year.

“It’s very, very easily spread. It’s spread by what we call ‘droplet spread’ — sneezing, coughing. Kids are phenomenal at spreading germs,” Swartz said.

Influenza can be contagious before a person shows symptoms, unlike, for example, the Ebola virus, which is contagious after symptoms present. Swartz said that influenza is a well-designed virus for spreading, and it mutates, or changes, most years.

Alana is one of the 1,243 children nationwide who have died from influenza since 2003.

Following Alana’s death, Zachary began educating people on influenza, and in 2009, Alana’s Foundation was created in her memory.

“I decided I was going to make a difference and educate people … on (a) preventable tragedy,” Zachary said. 

During the week of Sept. 15, Alana’s Foundation, in collaboration with Alabama-based Health Heroes Inc., completed a vaccination pilot program in nine Michigan school districts where consenting students received the influenza vaccine while in school. Health Heroes provides influenza vaccines to all consenting school children, regardless of their health insurance coverage.

In one week’s time, Alana’s Foundation and Health Heroes Inc. vaccinated 3,500 children in participating districts, including Bloomfield Hills School District and St. Mary’s Preparatory in Orchard Lake.

“This year, it went very well, as it does every year,” said Shira Good, director of communications for the Bloomfield Hills School District. “The district has participated each year because the generous program is named after Alana, a student in our district who passed away. This is a wonderful way to help prevent that from happening to another family.”

Most insurance companies cover the vaccine, but if a student did not have insurance, Alana’s Foundation covered the cost.

“The parents really like it because they don’t have to take time off work, they don’t have to schedule an appointment, they don’t have to take their children out of school, and it doesn’t cost them anything out of pocket,” Zachary said.

Students received the FluMist Quadrivalent nasal spray vaccine, but shots were available to those children who could not receive the nasal spray.

“It’s literally vaccinating hundreds of children in less than an hour,” Zachary said.

Flu season typically starts in November and lasts through March or April. But last year and this year, Swartz said, the season started early.

The influenza vaccine may be administered to people 6 months old and older. For infants younger than 6 months, doctors take a “cocoon” approach — vaccinating every person around the child — Swartz said. Pregnant women or women planning on becoming pregnant are also advised to receive the vaccine.

According to the CDC, the flu vaccine causes antibodies to develop in the body two weeks after vaccination. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season.

Aside from the vaccine, the CDC recommends people take everyday preventive measures to further protect themselves.

They recommend avoiding close contact with sick people, covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and discarding the tissue after use. Washing your hands often with soap; avoiding contact with your eyes, nose and mouth; and disinfecting surfaces is also essential, the CDC said.

They recommend that if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever has passed without the use of fever-reducing medication.

Studies by the CDC have shown that prescription flu antiviral drugs can make the illness milder and shorten its duration. The antivirals work best when started within two days of getting sick, and may also mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness with complications.

“Infectious diseases are the topic of the moment, and I think there’s confusion about things to worry about. Enterovirus (and) Ebola. … Both of those are quite rare … compared to influenza, which is so common.

“If you’re really worried about Ebola, get a flu vaccine. It’s something you can do something about and (the flu) really is ... reliably here every year,” she said.

For more information about Alana’s Foundation, visit www.alanasfoundation.org.

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