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NZ Flu is Killing our Kids


Flu is killing our kids

22 June 2005



A deadly strain of influenza B has claimed three young lives in the past six weeks and is now an epidemic among children in the North Island.



The Health Ministry appealed for vigilance yesterday after revealing that the flu outbreak, which has struck thousands of children and swept through schools around the country, had killed a third victim.


All three young people died after developing complications from the Hong Kong B strain of the virus.


Two weeks ago, Masterton schoolboy Matthew Campbell, who had been suffering flu-like symptoms, died suddenly after apparently contracting pneumonia overnight.


Hamilton teenager William MacErlich, who died last week, is believed to have fallen victim to complications associated with the flu. He had a fever and had been given antibiotics for a chest infection.


The third death was in the North Island but the Health Ministry will not reveal details out of concern for the grieving family. They are reportedly from the lower North Island.


Hong Kong B is the dominant strain circulating this winter. Children are vulnerable because the strain has not been common in New Zealand since 1987 - children born after that year are unlikely to have been exposed, so lack immunity.


Middle-aged and elderly people are not at high risk.


This year's flu vaccine, given mainly to adults and some children with health problems such as heart or respiratory disease, does not contain the Hong Kong B flu strain, which was in last year's vaccine. Another strain of influenza B, Shanghai, is circulating and is in this year's vaccine.


Influenza B was reaching epidemic proportions among children in the North Island and causing high rates of absence from school, ministry child and youth health adviser Pat Tuohy said. "We think this is a very serious outbreak, a very significant outbreak. The major concern is the level of illness that we're seeing in children and young people."


The ministry was concerned by the influenza-related deaths and warned parents and doctors that the impact of influenza B could be more severe than previously thought. It was only now being recognised internationally that the virus could lead to serious illness and death from a secondary infection, such as pneumonia or encephalitis, in children, Dr Tuohy said.


"It now seems likely that around the world influenza B has been implicated in more deaths in children and young people than the records show. Although the cause of death may have been recorded as bacterial pneumonia or some other infection, in fact it was the influenza B which made them vulnerable to that infection."


Dr Tuohy said there was no vaccine available against the Hong Kong B strain of bacteria. However, he still urged people to be vaccinated for protection against other strains.


The World Health Organisation decided which strains should be in the flu vaccine distributed in the southern hemisphere based on surveillance of cases, but Hong Kong B had not surfaced widely till a few months ago.


The ministry has asked hospitals to report how many children and people under 25 are being admitted with flu-related illnesses. By the end of the week it should have a clearer idea of the extent of the epidemic.


Wellington region medical officer of health Annette Nesdale said schools were saying this was the worst flu season they had seen, in terms of numbers of children off sick and the severity of the disease.


An independent safety monitoring board had found no link between the flu outbreak and the meningococcal vaccination being rolled out across New Zealand. Two of the children who died had had the MeNZB vaccine but one had not, Dr Tuohy said.


"This is a nasty bug, quite capable of causing death all on its own."




The severe virus knocking the stuffing out of children is also putting a strain on working parents who are being told to keep them home in a bid to prevent an escalating epidemic.


Influenza has knocked down two of Eleanor Steel's three children and she is waiting for it to hit the rest of the family.


The Wellington businesswoman's son Jack, 5, has been off school since last Wednesday. Normally a whirlwind of energy, he has been left quiet and lethargic by the illness.


Elsbeth, 3, came down with the same bug on Monday night. Both children have had high temperatures and a chesty cough. When she took Jack to the doctor she was told she could do little except give him plenty of fluids and help him rest.


She has had to close her interior design shop in Thorndon to look after her sick children. She is bracing herself for daughter Molly, 8, to fall sick as well. So far she and her husband have escaped.


Masterton schoolboy Joshua McKay, 9, has been sick for four days, the longest stretch he has ever been unwell.


He spent three days vomiting, had high temperatures and still has a violent cough.


Twenty-eight other pupils at Solway Primary school are also absent.


For Joshua's mother Jo, an early childhood teacher, having a child "laid out" for four days so far and probably longer is a juggling act.


"I have never seen him so sick, and as a parent you have to provide care. But as a working parent, it is really hard because how much time are we allowed to take?


"It is bloody hard to juggle and even if I can arrange care for them so I can be at work, there are the effects of being up all night with a child who can't sleep

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Unfortunately the flu will usually hit the younguns hard. They haven't been alive long enough to have built any immunity to the different strains.


I sure hope this bird(Avian) flu doesn't begin spreading. It has so far only been in Asia but it is pretty unlikely to stay there.

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