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The Hidden Impact of Influenza

Families Fighting Flu’s president, Shelle Allen, shares her daughter’s story and why influenza is more than just a bad cold.

Shelle Allen, President of Families Fighting Flu, shares her family's encounter with influenza.

“While consequences like hospitalization from the flu are less common, it does happen. And it’s painful to hear because their story could be anyone’s,” said Michele Slafkosky, Advocacy & Outreach Director, Families Fighting Flu – a non-profit that educates about the seriousness of influenza and the importance of annual vaccination.

So, while the likelihood is low, it is the story of one healthy 12-year-old named Madison, where a case of Influenza B led to sepsis, MRSA, pneumonia and given a 1% chance to live.

This all started with the usual symptoms of the flu, said her mother Shelle Allen: coughing, fatigue and fevers that would fluctuate with over-the-counter medication. “I wasn’t terribly worried,” she said. “I just thought it was a cold or maybe the flu.”

Then at 5am, her daughter began to have difficulty breathing, and felt there was no choice but to take her to the hospital. Nurses gave her oxygen and fluids, but nothing seemed to work – some of her organs began to show signs of failing. This nightmare would lead to Madison being transferred to three different hospitals to be put on various ventilators and dialysis machines to be kept alive.

Thankfully, 93 days later, Madison beat the odds and walked out of the hospital with her parents. At the time, the worst of the aftermath seemed to be having to relearn some of the athletic skills she acquired over the years to continue playing basketball and soccer. But over the course of 10 years afterwards, she developed some invisible scars: lung disease, asthma, anxiety and a chronic cough.

“I didn’t know the importance of flu; I didn’t know that healthy young children can die from the flu. What I learned was that the flu doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re young, old, healthy or have a chronic illness,” Allen said of the harrowing experience and the mark it left on her life.

Still shocked by the situation at the time, Allen searched the internet for answers. A social media post from an organization called Families Fighting Flu recounted her story, but it was a different family with an experience all too familiar. “I never knew there were others like us that have been affected by the flu,” she said. This inspired her to team up with the organization and eventually become their president, in hopes of contributing to the fight against the burden of influenza, which according to the World Health Organization results in anywhere from 290,000 to 650,000 deaths globally each year due to seasonal influenza, with many more hospitalized.

Forgetting or not making time to get vaccinated might be regrettable as it was for Allen, who said the year that Madison became ill, she was unvaccinated.

“It’s not that I didn’t believe in the science, or I didn’t trust vaccinations, it’s just that I put it on my to-do list and like others, I got busy. I also think I wasn’t educated enough to know about the importance of flu vaccines,” Allen said.

Therefore, Families Fighting Flu’s mission is to remind people of this often-hidden burden of influenza, and to make sure that people don’t skip out on a seasonal influenza vaccine if it is on their to-do list. Influenza can be much more serious than what some believe to be just a bad cold.

“People need to know that the flu is not ‘just the flu’ and all viruses need to be taken seriously,” Slafkosky said. The key to preventing other families from enduring a similar pain? Awareness, she said.

To get involved in helping to carry out their mission, they encourage you to join the Families Fighting Flu vaccination promise and discover more about their cause here.

Disclaimer: In most cases, influenza may result in mild to moderate illness, while some may be more severe. This represents the individual’s personal story and is not intended to provide medical advice. If you are experiencing symptoms of influenza, please contact a medical professional.