Dr. Laura Sidari is speaking out because her family suffered a horrendous loss on Christmas Day 2017.
The Air Force psychiatrist at the Wright-Patterson Medical Center on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and her husband, Dr. Anthony Sidari, a rheumatologist, lost their 4-year-old son, Leon, to complications of influenza. He passed away at a medical facility elsewhere from bacterial pneumonia following the flu, two days following onset of symptoms on Dec. 23, 2018.
Although the Sidari family had vaccinated for the flu in prior seasons, Leon died prior to receiving his flu shot that season, Sidari said. He had been scheduled to be vaccinated Jan. 3, 2018.
"Last year, if I had seen a story like my own, I would have prioritized the flu shot differently," she said. "As a physician, even I was unaware of the significant risk that the flu posed to my healthy child. Through reaching out to others, including other physician parents, I have discovered that I am not alone in that misconception."
"Leon's story places a name and a face — a beautiful and loved and special human being — behind the numbers that are often buried in databases and scattered across headlines," Sidari said. "As difficult as it is for me as a mother, I share Leon's story so that someday other families may not have to. As I have devastatingly learned through Leon, flu-related complications are often aggressive and difficult to treat."
Healthy children may be more at risk for suffering a flu-related death. Research of flu-related deaths provides evidence for the flu shot providing a 65 percent reduction in risk for flu-related mortality in healthy children, and a 41 percent reduction in mortality risk for children with pre-existing medical issues. Approximately 80 percent of children who pass away each season from flu-related complications did not have their flu shot that season.
Four-year-old Leon Sidari passed away from bacterial pneumonia following the flu two days after the onset of symptoms on Dec. 25, 2017.
"Being healthy is a risk factor for rapid death," Sidari said. "I didn't even know that as a physician. Compared to other pediatric populations, they die more quickly."
As of Oct. 6, 2018, there have been more than 180 children lost to the 2017-2018 influenza season, according to online information published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these children died before reaching the hospital.
Sidari is quick to point out that she is speaking only from her perspective as a mother — not a pediatric specialist — who made sure her children received every vaccination recommended. After Leon's death, she tried to learn as much as she could about influenza in the hope that the Sidari family's then 2-year-old son, Tristan, and 7-week-old son, Cameron, would not also pass away.
"I really wanted to understand the likelihood that we were going to lose our other children," she said. "That's how I found this information."
The mother, with the full support of her husband, now wants to dispel the common misconception that good health affords protection against the flu, and the entire Sidari family received flu shots at the Wright-Patterson Medical Center immunization clinic the first week of October 2018.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend the flu shot for everyone older than the age of 6 months with few medical exceptions.
The Sidari family faces this holiday season without their first-born, who loved Christmas. His mother remembers him as good big brother who was kind and sensitive, loved cats and gave compliments. Small things are what mattered to him.
"Nothing prepares you as a parent for coming home and having to unwrap Christmas presents for a child who never can," she said.
"As parents, there are many demands on our time and energy, particularly around the holidays," Sidari said. "The flu shot can too easily and understandably slip through the cracks due to busy schedules.
"In my experience, it is worth prioritizing this time of the year. This is a necessary appointment. Bringing awareness to the flu shot will not bring Leon back. I do, however, believe in the healing power of connecting with others," she said.
She also encourages people to explore multiple options if flu shots are unavailable through their usual source.
"It is my hope that Leon's story can help save lives," Sidari said. "Especially for children like Leon, I encourage other families to consider making the flu shot a priority, this season and every season. It's the best way of reducing risk we have. #FluShotsForLeon."
This article originally appeared on the United States Air Force. Follow @usairforce on Twitter.