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More Older Kids Dying From Swine Flu

September 4, 2009

A new detailed study of U.S. children killed by swine flu showed the outbreak differs from ordinary flu in that it appears to be taking a higher toll on school-age children than on babies and toddlers, Reuters reported.

Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that at least 40 children have died, accounting for about one in 13 U.S. swine flu deaths.

However, two-thirds of those already had high-risk health problems.

Health officials say that while it isn’t clear whether the new virus is more dangerous than ordinary seasonal flu for kids, some experts suspect it may be.

The new analysis shows some preliminary and important differences.

Around half or more of the children who die of the flu are 4 and under, but more than 80 percent of the kids who died with swine flu were 5 through 17.

“That may be because older children spend time at school and summer camp, exposed to more people than younger children kept at home,” said Dr. Beth Bell, a CDC epidemiologist.

Epilepsy, cerebral palsy or other neurodevelopmental conditions were found in almost two-thirds of the children who died from swine flu. Only a third of the children who died had those conditions in a previous flu season.

The report showed that bacterial infection on top of the flu virus played a role in most of the deaths of otherwise healthy children.

The CDC estimates that since being identified in April, swine flu is now responsible for almost all flu cases in the United States and has caused more than 1 million illnesses so far, though most were mild and not reported. Officials have since reported more than 550 lab-confirmed deaths and 8,800 hospitalizations.

But CDC officials say those statistics don’t mean the new flu is worse than seasonal flu, which is particularly lethal to the elderly and plays a role in an estimated 36,000 deaths each year.

Many parents are worried because swine flu is causing more suffering in children and young adults than is customary. Some emergency room doctors say they are seeing a lot of mildly ill children brought in by parents fearful that it is a swine flu case that will turn worse.

CDC officials said swine flu cases are most common in the Southeast, possibly because schools are already in session, providing more opportunity for infections to spread.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden said there are no signs that the virus is mutating to become more deadly, as some scientists feared.

The CDC doesn’t monitor seasonal flu deaths as closely as it does swine flu, and there is currently no comprehensive count of each year’s flu deaths.

The new report focuses on 477 lab-confirmed swine flu deaths reported through Aug. 8. Thirty-six during that period were children.

But it noted that about 20 percent of those children were 4 or younger. Meanwhile, 50 percent or more of seasonal flu deaths are babies or toddlers, who have less mature immune systems and are more vulnerable to respiratory infections.

High-risk medical conditions were noted in two-thirds of the children who died. Nearly all of them had an illness related to the nervous system, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other seizure disorders.

Experts have long known that children with neurodevelopmental conditions have a greater risk of serious complications from the flu. CDC officials said the proportion of swine flu victims with that kind of underlying condition is high compared to a previous flu season.

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