AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — An early-arriving flu season has claimed the life of a healthy youngster for the first time in years in Maine, officials said Tuesday, prompting pleas for people to get vaccinations.
The victim was an otherwise healthy elementary school-aged child in central Maine, a heartbreaking case that flies in the face of the perception that influenza is a disease that kills only the elderly and the frail, said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.
"It's a tragedy and we're really saddened by it. It highlights the need for people to get immunized," Pinette said.
Authorities declined to provide any further details on the child who died.
In Maine, influenza was documented before Halloween, far earlier than usual. In a typical year, the flu doesn't arrive until late November or early December, Pinette said.
So far, nursing homes, schools and day care centers have had 18 major outbreaks, which are required to be reported to state health officials, she said.
The death of a healthy child is extremely rare. The last flu deaths of children in Maine were in 2008 and 2010, and both involved a child with underlying health conditions, said John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in Augusta.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache and general achiness and fatigue. People at high risk of flu-related complications include the elderly, children under 5, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 20 percent of U.S. residents will get the flu each year, with more than 200,000 of them being hospitalized.
The best way to prevent the flu is through vaccinations, which remain plentiful in Maine, Pinette said. People 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine each year unless their doctor recommends against it.
Those who have symptoms of the flu should see their doctor, stay home from work or school, and practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus, she said.