After 17-year-old John landed in the intensive care unit in a coma with kidney failure from influenza strain B, his mother is encouraging others to get vaccinated to avoid his fate.
“It’s important that you get the flu shot,” LaToya Chelcy, 42, of LaGrange, Georgia, told TODAY. “I just wish I had been getting my children the flu shot. I feel that if he had been getting the flu shot, this right here would have been prevented.”
Early flu symptoms
Before Christmas, John was exhausted and said his muscles hurt. Chelcy felt worried. Her son rarely fell ill.
“The only thing that was wrong with him was extreme body aches. He had never (before complained) of being sore or not being able to move,” she said.
They visited a walk-in clinic where John started having a dramatic and unexpected reaction.
“As the doctor started to touch him to examine him, John started screaming that his body hurt and he couldn’t be touched,” Chelcy said. “There was some real concern.”
The doctor soon knew what was wrong: John had the flu.
“That was surprising,” she said. “He never had any health problems. He never even had the flu.”
That’s why John had never had a flu shot. She believed that because he was so healthy he didn’t need one.
“I never thought about it,” Chelcy admitted.
The doctor thought John should go to the emergency room, but he felt so exhausted and begged to go home. At his grandmother's house, he collapsed across the bed and when she tried to reposition him, he howled in pain.
“She went to help him and he screamed,” Chelcy explained.
Doctors at the emergency room confirmed he had the flu but also made another discovery: John’s kidneys were failing.
“They made him do a urine sample. His urine was a dark color, coffee,” she said.
The transferred him to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and soon John stopped eating and became listless. His kidneys weren't functioning and doctors placed him in a medically induced coma.
“He had so much fluid in his body that he wasn’t releasing,” Chelcy said.
Doctors used dialysis to help his kidney function improve and it worked. But his body continued to swell and he developed pneumonia in his right lung.
“He couldn’t breathe,” Chelcy said.
Finally, his kidney functioning slowly returned and should continue working for the long term.
“(Dialysis) took off a whole lot of fluid,” she said. “He’s back to normal now.”
He’s doing so well that he's expected to return home after doctors remove his catheter. John is now looking forward to playing video games and driving again, while his mom can’t wait until he “makes a full recovery and gets back to school and his regular life.”
The rise of influenza B
Doctors are seeing many children and teens with a strain of the virus called B/Victoria, like John. In past flu seasons, the pattern has been that an influenza A strain hits first, then the B strain swoops in later in the year. But this season the B/Victoria strain has hit early, affecting otherwise healthy young people.
“Flu B has a predilection for striking children,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases told NBC News. “We’re seeing lots of children and more young adults at the present time. That’s a reflection of the dominance of flu B.”
John’s extreme body ache is characteristic of this type of infection.
“Patients are more likely to have muscle pain,” Dr. Andi Shane, system medical director and hospital epidemiologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, told TODAY. “When we look at children with this infection, you seem to have some of these other complications related to their kidneys or brain.”
Shane said experts don’t know why influenza B struck earlier this year. What’s more, they’re not sure why some children and teens experience such severe complications.
“That also might be because children seem to be less immune to B than they are to A,” Shane said. “It's more likely that an older child has had an A infection.”
That means their body had the chance to build up some immunity to the A strains so they’re better able to fight influenza A. However, Shane said this is just a hypothesis and experts still need to investigate it more. That’s why everyone should be vaccinated every year.
“The best way to protect your child from getting any influenza is to get an influenza vaccine,” she said.
How to protect your children from the fluJan. 14, 202002:21
If people contract flu after having the vaccine, they’re less likely to end up with serious complications, such as kidney failure or blindness.
“Children who have a vaccine and get infected have a much less severe infection,” she said.
John’s case highlights how the flu can have a devastating impact on anyone.
“What we've seen in the past couple of seasons is that we've had high rates of children, who have had severe infections and also have died, and some of those children were otherwise healthy,” she said.
If people have not yet received a flu vaccine she recommends they still get it. Flu season continues through April.
“Everyone is at risk for the flu,” she said. “It is a democratic virus.”