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The flu turned deadly within 48 hours for this young family. Now they are vaccinated every year

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Jessica Richman felt fear rush over her – again.

In October, she saw her 3-year-old daughter, Layla, become unusually lethargic, develop a high fever and begin to experience shortness of breath. It was a painful reminder of her other daughter, Cayden, who died of the flu in December 2014.

Cayden was the same age as Layla.

“These were symptoms very similar to Cayden’s. So, of course, I jumped in at high speed,” Richman said.

When Layla’s symptoms began on Halloween, Richman took her to an urgent care clinic in her hometown of Newport News, Virginia.

“His heart rate was elevated. Her fever was very high. They kept her there for most of the afternoon to watch her,” Richman said. “I explained to the doctor who was there that I lost a 3-year-old daughter to the flu, so that was very scary for me. He really took it seriously.”

Layla’s medical team diagnosed her with the flu and gave her Motrin for the fever and the antiviral Tamiflu to treat the infection.

“She felt better quickly, within 24 hours,” Richman said.

Jessica Richman with her family.

Richman’s experience during this flu season was dramatically different from 2014, when she lost her beloved Cayden.

One key difference: Cayden was not vaccinated in 2014. Layla received the vaccine in September.

“I really think the vaccine played a big role,” said Richman, who serves as secretary for the nonprofit Families Fighting Flu.

Even though Layla became ill when she encountered the flu virus weeks after her vaccination, “she recovered quickly,” Richman said, adding that no one else in the household – which also includes her husband Matt and 6-year-old son Parker – caught the flu from Layla.

They had all been vaccinated prior to Layla’s illness.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 16,000 people have died from the flu this season, and at least 79 deaths have been children.

Seasonal flu activity continues to be very prevalent in the United States, but has declined in most areas in recent weeks. Still, public health officials encourage people to get the annual flu shot as the best way to protect against this virus.

Many people who don’t get the seasonal flu shot aren’t necessarily anti-vaccination. They simply may not have had the time. That was the case for Cayden in 2014.

That year, Richman and Cayden’s father got his flu shot, but Cayden’s vaccination had to be rescheduled because she had a cold at the time.

“Since at the time I was also misinformed about the flu, I didn’t think it was super urgent to go and immediately get the flu shot as soon as she was well,” Richman said. “I kind of put it off.”

One Thursday a few weeks later, Cayden was no longer chatty and lively. The 3-year-old, affectionately known as CadyBug, was tired and started coughing. She stayed home from day care with her father, and he took her to the pediatrician’s office.

The doctor thought Cayden’s symptoms were likely a cold virus and sent her home without getting tested for the flu, Richman said.

The next morning, Cayden still had a fever. She coughed and kept asking for water. Her father took her back to the pediatrician’s office, but she was sent home again.

“No one has tested her for the flu. No one seemed to think this was the flu,” Richman said. “She was sent home that Friday afternoon.”

When they got home, Cayden’s symptoms got worse.

“She deteriorated very, very quickly. It was in a matter of hours,” Richman said. “It was very deep, shallow breaths. She wasn’t breathing properly.”

Richman said he was driving home from work when he received a frightening phone call from Cayden’s father: Cayden had stopped breathing during his nap. He called 911. Richman arrived home to find emergency vehicles in front of his house and paramedics working Cayden.

“She couldn’t be resuscitated at home,” Richman said. “On the ambulance ride, they didn’t tell me at the time that she couldn’t be resuscitated, but I figured it out because she was riding in the ambulance and there was no noise. So I knew it was over.”

When Cayden died, his parents still had no idea it was the flu.

“It wasn’t until we received an autopsy that I clearly understood that it was the flu that caused her lungs to fill with mucus until she could no longer breathe,” Richman said. “I had no idea what happened until we got the autopsy back.”

Before Cayden’s tragic death, her mother was unaware that the flu could be fatal.

“I was completely taken aback,” she said. “I had no idea this could happen.”

Nearly a decade later, Richman and his family get flu shots every year in Cayden’s memory. They wear pink and share social media posts about it using the hashtag #pinkforcadybug, as pink was Cayden’s favorite color.

The most common symptoms of the flu are fever, body aches and chills. In some cases, it can cause lower respiratory tract infections, known as pneumonia, or directly infect cells in the heart and brain, causing inflammation in those organs, said Dr. Tara Vijayan, an infectious disease physician at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an email.

She added that inflammation can result in the death of the body’s own cells.

“More commonly, however, if the flu is going to cause serious illness, it’s because it disrupts the lining of the respiratory tract in such a way that the lungs become more susceptible to other bacterial pneumonias,” Vijayan said. “Generally, those who are unvaccinated and have multiple medical issues or have reduced immune systems are at greater risk, but we’ve seen death in younger healthy people.”

She added that older people or pregnant women are also at high risk of complications.

Treating patients with severe flu is a frequent but difficult experience for Dr. Ali Khan, who specialized in internal medicine at one of the Oak Street Health primary care facilities in Chicago.

“It’s an incredibly difficult infection to watch as a clinician,” Khan said, adding that flu infections can become deadly when someone contracts an overlapping bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, or develops severe sepsis.

“We receive people who arrive at hospitals with seizures or with encephalitis caused by the flu. People who come in with significant muscle damage and breakdown, like the kind you get when you’re quite dehydrated and overly tired,” he said. “Suffice it to say, I’ve seen this more times than I’d like to see as a clinician.”

It’s not too late to get this season’s flu shot if you haven’t already, Khan said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “Absolutely, you can still get vaccinated.”

Vijayan had similar feelings.

“Our flu rates were unexpectedly high in the late fall and seem to be stabilizing, but I would be absolutely concerned about another spike in cases this winter,” she said. “It’s not too late to get a flu shot.”