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Two Families Describe Battles With H1N1

October 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Betty Ann Bowser takes an in-depth look at two families attempting to cope with the H1N1 flu.

JIM LEHRER: Now a swine flu story.

Betty Ann Bowser of our Health Unit reports on two families coping with that illness. The unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jaroy Acosta loves puzzles. He attacks them with the enthusiasm of a normal, robust 5-year-old. So, it seems almost unbelievable that, just three weeks ago, he laid near death in a Washington, D.C., hospital, taken down in a matter of days by H1N1 swine flu.

ANA ACOSTA, mother: I even think that it won’t happen to us, to our family.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ana Acosta is Jaroy mother. She and her husband, Wilmer, emigrated from Honduras to the suburbs of Washington 10 years ago.

ANA ACOSTA: We couldn’t have children for 10 years. So, he is a miracle child.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When little Jaroy got so sick so fast, they were devastated.

ANA ACOSTA: I don’t know where he got it. I don’t have any idea, because his brother got sick first.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The boy’s pediatrician put them on the antiviral Tamiflu, one of two drugs proven effective in treating the virus. Three-year-old Jurel got better. But Jaroy did not.

ANA ACOSTA: Jaroy was getting worse. You know, he still had the fever. But it was controlled. But, on Saturday night, he had a fever, no-stop fever. We couldn’t control the fever at all. He got up to 104 fever.

WILMER ACOSTA, father: He start feeling a lot of — with coughing. He can’t breathe very well. He breathe this way.

ANA ACOSTA: He was wheezing a lot.

WILMER ACOSTA: Very — but very fast.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jaroy is one of a small number of children for whom H1N1 has been a life-threatening illness. That’s because he has an underlying condition, asthma, which made him vulnerable to a secondary infection, viral pneumonia.

The Centers for Disease Control doesn’t know exactly how many kids like Jaroy have been hospitalized for swine flu. But they estimate at least 95 have died since April, 11 of them in just the second week of October.

H1N1 virus spreading fast

Dr. David Stockwell
National Medical Center, Pediatric Care
Since the middle of September, we have seen the rebound of H1N1 influenza virus...It escalated fairly rapidly.

DR. DAVID STOCKWELL: He was very, very ill.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. David Stockwell is the medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, where Jaroy was rushed four weeks ago in acute respiratory distress.

DR. DAVID STOCKWELL: Having a lung disease like asthma can make an infection in the lungs be a little bit more severe than -- than a child who is of the same age who doesn't have asthma. And he has been one of our sickest patients that we have had in the -- the last few months that has had the H1N1 influenza virus.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For 10 days, special ventilators helped Jaroy's lungs function and pumped oxygen into his blood. His parents were given heartbreaking odds.

WILMER ACOSTA: They give us only 30 percent that maybe...

ANA ACOSTA: Of chance.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thirty percent chance?


WILMER ACOSTA: Chance for maybe he can survive.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Were you ever at a point where you thought that you were going to lose him?


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Things got so bad, at one point, the doctors were about to take drastic measures.

DR. DAVID STOCKWELL: He was sick enough that -- that we were even entertaining a method called ECMO, which is the ability to support the heart and lungs by taking blood out of the body and -- and having a machine act as a heart and lung machine outside of the body to support him. We had that ready to go to support him. And, luckily, we were able to treat him successfully to where we did not need to use that. And his disease peaked. He started to get better.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Doctors at Children's say most of the H1N1 patients in the hospital haven't been as sick as Jaroy. And, in fact, many cases have been no worse than what they see in a normal flu season.

DR. DAVID STOCKWELL: Since the middle of September, we have seen the rebound of H1N1 influenza virus come into the hospital. It escalated fairly rapidly. It seems to have been hovering in the last few weeks for -- around 20 patients, maybe a few more, a few less.

But, like we talked about, the -- the severity of the illness does not seem to be any different than -- than the typical standard influenza season.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What troubles them, though, is the H1N1's ability to attack the lungs, even in normally healthy kids.

Not all kids bounce back easily

Tracey Albright
Mother of swine flu vic
She's very, you know, lively and perky. And that has kind of been gone for the past week. So, we knew that she wasn't really making any improvement.

TRACEY ALBRIGHT, mother of swine flu victim: They just said it's bad luck.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tracey Albright expected her eight-year-old Kaylee would bounce back after coming down with H1N1 a few weeks ago.

TRACEY ALBRIGHT: She's very, you know, lively and perky. And that has kind of been gone for the past week. So, we knew that she wasn't really making any improvement. And she really hasn't eaten or drank anything in about 10 to 11 days.

The cough was very dry at first. And we noticed that she had kind of gotten a little bit better, like, four days after the Tamiflu. And then, the next day, she woke up and her fevers were spiking back up again, to, like, 104. And her cough was more crackly. And she complained of her side hurting. And then that is when we took her to the E.R. the first time that she was diagnosed with a pneumonia.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When her condition got worse, she was transported from her local hospital near Baltimore to Children's National Medical Center in Washington, where she is recovering. Her prognosis is good.

Dr. Stockwell says, parents should watch for these warning signs.

DR. DAVID STOCKWELL: They're trying to hard to breathe. Those are concerning symptoms. Symptoms where a child is very, very, very fussy, almost to the point where you not able to hold them and console them, would be a sign that -- that may warrant more medical attention. A child who is not eating and drinking like they -- they typically do, these children are at risk, like with any infection, for becoming dehydrated.

So, those are the sort of things that we would like to put on -- on parents' radars to be on the watch for. But, just to reiterate, most of these infections can be very successfully managed at home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The CDC continues to say the best weapon against H1N1 is vaccination. But the reality is, there is very little available.

Even at a major medical center like Children's, there are only a few hundred doses of vaccine right now to address the needs of 5,000 staff and tens of thousands of children who get in-patient and outpatient care at the facility. Billions of parents, Albright is waiting. She wants to have Kaylee and her two other children vaccinated against H1N1.

But the kids' pediatrician hasn't received his shipment yet. All three kids have had their seasonal flu shots.

WILMER ACOSTA: This changed all my life, Jaroy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And while the Acosta family at one time feared the side effects from seasonal flu vaccine, they will have their two boys vaccinated against H1N1 as soon as possible.

ANA ACOSTA: Well, because I -- now I see what a virus can do for them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And, as far as the Acostas are concerned, once is enough.

JIM LEHRER: We have posted answers to viewers' questions about the H1N1 flu vaccine on our Web site, which, of course, is