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Between the Lines: That Little Girl From Bristol

A recent story from Rhode Island heightens a parent's fear of the flu.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

My daughter looked up and smiled weakly. I put my hand to her forehead: she was warm, flush with fever.

"Daddy, H1N1 is the same thing as swine flu, right?" she said.

I nodded, wondering where our eight-year-old had picked up that bit of information. Did she know anything about this particular strain of influenza before she got sick, or had she started to pay attention only recently to the endless barrage of flu stories in the media? I'd lowered the volume on the previous evening's three-hour H1N1 special on New England Cable News, not wanting to scare her. Maybe she'd heard my wife talking about swine flu with my mother-in-law, or overheard other parents talking about it incessantly on the sidelines of soccer games.

"Daddy, I like calling it H1N1 instead of swine flu. H1N1 sounds better," she said, searching my face for validation. "Daddy, I'm kind of scared. I don't want to be sick. I don't want to..."

Maybe she was going to say she didn't want to miss out on trick or treat, but I didn't want to hear her finish the sentence. "Don't worry, honey. Just rest. You'll be fine," I said.

"But, daddy, that little girl in Bristol..."

Ah, the little girl in Bristol, R. I. The story of 12-year-old Victoria Sousa, the first Ocean Stater to die of the H1N1 virus since its resurgence this fall, had provided a timely hook for the NECN coverage the night before, had been headline news nationally, had likely seared its way into the mind of anyone prone to worry about highly contagious and potentially lethal viruses.

For parents of otherwise healthy school-aged children, Sousa's death was especially chilling: the fourth Rhode Islander to die of H1N1 since the flu outbreak last spring, the little girl was the first to die without having an apparent underlying condition—a pulmonary or neurological condition or other illness that would have put her in a high-risk category. Sousa was, according to reports, a healthy, happy kid who appeared to have recovered from a short, mild illness. Her parents had kept her home from school on a Friday and, by Sunday evening, were thinking about sending her back to school. Then suddenly she took a turn for the worse. She died on Monday.

I told my daughter not to worry, reminding her that she had hyper-vigilant parents who would watch her closely, take her temperature every hour, pump her full of fluids and call the doctor at the first sign of trouble.

Truth was, we'd already called our pediatrician. The nurse had listened to the symptoms—a 102 degree temperature that didn't drop below 99 degrees even after a recommended dose of acetaminophen, head and body aches, chills, a cough and a runny nose—and told us it was probably swine flu.

No, the doctor didn't need to see her unless her condition began to deteriorate—the same thing doctors have been saying for weeks as they see their offices and emergency rooms overrun by mildly sick but very worried patients. The nurse told us not to worry unless our daughter became inconsolably agitated—"so uncomfortable that you can't even touch her without her crying," was how she put it—or unresponsive, unable to wake up. We should watch for signs of pulmonary distress, particularly a bluish color around her lips.

Sadly, the federal government doesn't appear to be doing much more than reacting to the crisis. While it pushes a vaccine that remains largely unavailable, any urgency it conveys is undercut by its recent message to flu sufferers: "Most people with H1N1 have had mild illness... You should not go to the emergency room if you are only mildly ill."

A week before my daughter got sick, I'd heard a public health official in Washington talking about the need for everyone to get the vaccine and trying to allay fears about the current shortage. He noted, with a big grin, that media stories about the shortages had, as usual, driven up demand. His remark only increased my cynicism: had the media been enlisted simply to push a product?

Before my little girl got sick, I was inclined to blow off the swine flu vaccine just as I always have the one for seasonal flu. As I heard other parents talking—the vast majority were, like my wife and me, disinclined to get the vaccine for themselves or their children—I grew more confident in my position. Besides, the vaccine was unavailable to anyone not considered high risk. Why worry about it?

But now what? Should our daughter get the vaccine if and when it is available, even though she may have already had the virus? Has H1N1 taken its best shot or are we likely to see it become more aggressive, more deadly?

I become more incredulous at the government's handling of this health crisis with each passing day. But I can no longer find comfort in cynicism or in the cold statistics that seem to predict that my daughter will soon be well. All it took to shake my confidence was that one little girl from Bristol.

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