Washington state

Seattle girl dies of flu complication

SEATTLE - A 7-year-old girl has died of a rare complication of the flu, and a high school shut down Thursday because of a high percentage of absentees due to illness, but public health officials say it's still a typical flu season.

Sarah Horner of Kent died Monday of myocarditis due to influenza, according to the King County Medical Examiner.

Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, is a rare complication of the flu, said Jeffrey Duchin, chief of the communicable disease section for Public Health-Seattle & King County. The condition can cause the heart muscle to not pump effectively, decreasing blood flow to the brain and other organs, causing the body to shut down, he said.

Sarah was the first child younger than 15 who has died in King County due to flu-related causes since 1999, he said.

But this is not an indication of an unusual strain of the flu causing severe illness in children, said James Apa, a spokesman for the health agency.

"This death appears to be an uncommon reaction to a common virus in the community," he said.

"We're not seeing any superbugs in the community," he said. "What we're seeing is a typical flu virus."

Bishop Blanchet High School, a private Catholic school in Seattle, was closed Thursday and is rescheduled to open Monday.

The school had about 30 percent of its students sick, and based on the information he has now, the culprit is probably a mixture of the flu and a gastrointestinal infection, Duchin said.

Duchin said this was the first time since 1995 that he had heard of a school in King County closing due to the flu.

As of Monday, 33 schools in King County had greater than 10 percent absenteeism, a marked increase from the week before, when only five schools reported an absentee rate of more than 10 percent, according to the health agency.

That number and the number of people infected are typical when compared to past flu seasons, Duchin said.

Statewide, there have been fewer cases of the flu so far this year than in other years, said Tim Church, spokesman for the state Department of Health.

February and March are usually the peak of the flu season, he said. Until the past couple of weeks, there hadn't been many cases of the flu, he said.

"We're certainly starting to see a few more now," he said.

The death of the 7-year-old girl "reminds us that influenza is a really serious illness and sometimes even in healthy people can be fatal," Duchin said.

"People who haven't become ill yet should seriously consider getting vaccinated," Duchin said.

People tend to think that if they don't get their flu shots by October or November, it's not worth getting, Church said.

"That's absolutely not true," he said. "It's not too late.