Influenza has killed 3 unvaccinated Sask. preschoolers so far this season: public health officials

Health officials are pleading with families to get flu shots, with hospitalization rates for the flu this season highest for children under age nine. Only one in three Saskatchewan toddlers has had the vaccine, the provincial health authority says.

Health officials say H1N1 virus hitting otherwise healthy children hardest

Katelyn Hansen says her daughter, Kaelynn, 'loved to dance and to jig.' The two-year-old died of pneumonia a few days after she was diagnosed with the H1N1 virus. (Submitted by Katelyn Hansen)

Katelyn Hansen has spent the past month mourning her two-year-old daughter.

"There was a lot of people who loved her," said Hansen, who lives in Wollaston Lake, Sask. "She loved to dance and to jig."

On Dec. 2, Hansen's daughter became so sick that she was flown to La Ronge, more than 350 kilometres to the southwest, where the girl tested positive for the H1N1 virus.

After three days of watching her daughter fail to respond to antibiotics, Hansen and two-year-old Kaelynn were flown by air ambulance to the pediatric intensive care unit at Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital.

"The X-rays showed her lungs were cloudy," said Hansen. "She couldn't breathe."

'She was very, very sick,' said Katelyn Hansen, who watched her H1N1-infected daughter die at Royal University Hospital last month. (Submitted by Katelyn Hansen)

On Dec. 8, 2018, Kaelynn Angel Hansen died, making her the first preschool-aged casualty of this season's influenza outbreak in Saskatchewan.

The virus has since killed two more unvaccinated children under the age of five, public health officials say. There have been a total of six flu-related deaths this season in Saskatchewan, according to the province's latest report.

"Any hospitalization death is sad but especially when it's under the age of five, it's very concerning," said Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer. 

So far, 1,723 cases of influenza have been confirmed this year in Saskatchewan, although Shahab said that's an underestimate. To date, the virus has sent 14 people to intensive care units, the province's flu report for the week of Dec. 29 says.

'It's extremely devastating for all of us because we cannot save a child we know we could have saved,' said Dr. Laurentiu Givelichian, the provincial head of pediatrics with the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Health Authority. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"Please give your children the flu shot," said Dr. Laurentiu Givelichian, the Saskatchewan Health Authority's head of pediatrics. "We are doing everything we can to save our children from dying."

He said for the past month, staff at Saskatoon's main pediatric ward have watched families in tears, helpless as their children lie hooked up to ventilators and monitors, struggling for oxygen.

"The machines beep continuously," said Givelichian. "Despite the efforts of the experts in our hospital there's only so much we can do against Mother Nature."

He said the virus is hitting otherwise healthy children hard, particularly those under age nine.

People need to understand giving the flu shot is like putting on a seat belt.- Dr. Laurentiu Givelichian, Saskatchewan Health Authority

"They have a tendency to be sicker than usual," Givelichian said.

"Their oxygen level goes down quite fast compared to previous years."

Unless they've been vaccinated, young children have little immunity to the H1N1 influenza A virus, which last made the rounds in Saskatchewan in 2010.

Public health officials say they've given out 287,000 doses of the flu vaccine, but most Saskatchewan children remain unvaccinated.

Only one in three toddlers in the province has received the vaccine, according to data from the province's Ministry of Health. That drops to one in five children from ages five to eight.

Officials at Sasktchewan's Ministry of Health are urging families to get vaccinated for influenza. (CBC)

"People need to understand giving the flu shot is like putting on a seat belt," said Givelichian.   

"It's extremely devastating for all of us, because we cannot save a child we know we could have saved," he said.

Hospitalizations among preschoolers have spiked, as the virus began to circulate several weeks earlier than usual this fall, the province's latest flu report says.

Unlike previous years, it struck communities in northern Saskatchewan first.

In Wollaston Lake, Hansen said neither she nor her daughter had the shot when Kaelynn became sick.

"I can't eat," said Hansen, who buried her daughter in Wollaston Lake on Dec. 10.  

"I'm not the way I used to be," she said.

Doctors are now urging anyone with flu-like symptoms to stay home, and to keep sick children out of day cares and schools.

"We have a tendency in Saskatchewan to think our children are healthy," said Dr. Givelichian.

"I'm asking the public to think before they make a decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate."

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