It wasn’t until 2010 that all people ages 6 months and older would be recommended to receive annual flu vaccine. This meant that thousands of young children like Antonio “Tonio” were left unprotected from influenza virus each year.
During the fall of 2001 Tonio celebrated his first birthday. Several weeks prior he had been hospitalized with a respiratory illness that made his breathing extremely labored and caused excessive dehydration from fever and vomiting. Tonio spent several days in the hospital, where he was surrounded by an oxygen tent and provided with treatments to aid with his breathing. Fortunately, he responded well to treatments and was able to go home for close follow-up with his pediatrician.
That November with flu season on the upswing, Tonio fell ill again and his parents began to realize that he didn’t seem to recover from respiratory illnesses as rapidly as other children (it would be another year before he would be officially diagnosed with asthma and allergies). Tonio’s mother became very concerned and brought him to the pediatrician, who gave the typical advice to hydrate him as best possible and bring him back if his condition worsened.
Throughout that day he continued to vomit and had a very high fever. As the long night wore on, he seemed to become more listless, but his fever seemed to have finally broken. When Tonio’s pediatrician called very early the next morning, his mother reported that she thought that perhaps he was over the hurdle. His fever had broken and he now felt cold and clammy, although he also seemed increasingly listless and limp in her arms. Much to her surprise, the pediatrician became very alarmed and directed her to rush Tonio to the closest hospital where she would meet them. She explained that being cold and clammy was not a sign the fever had broken, but a dangerous sign that his blood pressure was too low.
Once in the emergency room, Tonio was whisked into a treatment room where his mother was asked to hold him down so that a needle could be inserted into his tiny arm to provide intravenous fluids, as he was dangerously dehydrated. He was placed in an imposing metal crib that was surrounded by a plastic oxygen tent. Every hour, 24 hours a day, a technician provided him with breathing treatments using a Nebulizer machine. Doctors checked his breathing regularly and his oxygen levels gradually increased. After three days of treatment, Tonio was discharged to a very nervous set of parents with instructions on how to properly assess his breathing function in the event that he became ill again in the future. Fortunately, he made it through the rest of that flu season without any major illnesses.
Flash forward one year to the pending flu season, when a major shortage of flu vaccine spurred public health officials to recommend vaccination only for high risk individuals. Tonio’s mother placed a call to the pediatrician to inquire about his need for a flu shot, explaining that he had been hospitalized twice the year before and therefore might be considered high risk. It wasn’t until this time that she was informed that his chart read that he had been hospitalized due to complications from the flu, and because he was also recently diagnosed with asthma, he was prioritized to receive the flu vaccine. This was the first time his parents learned that their child’s hospitalization was related to influenza, as no one had told them that upon discharge (it was only written in the chart). They also learned that children with asthma were at increased risk of serious complications from flu.
Since that frightening battle with influenza, Antonio (and his entire family) have received flu vaccines every year. Today, Antonio is a healthy college student, who gets vaccinated every year (this time on his own). His parents have become members of Families Fighting Flu (FFF) to help others recognize how quickly influenza can escalate into a serious illness and how to recognize the signs of distress in their children.
The Pisani family has spoken out about the dangers of influenza to a number of news outlets and took part in an educational video campaign that played on Delta and United Airlines during flu season.