A 4-year-old has gone blind from the flu: How often does this happen?

A 4-year-old has gone blind after getting the flu. The little girl, Jade DeLucia, hadn’t received the flu vaccine this year, and now her mom is sharing Jade's story to raise awareness, with the aim of saving other families from a similar fate.

Back on Dec. 19, Jade told her mom, Amanda Phillips, that she wasn’t feeling well. Over the next few days, Jade experienced a low-grade fever, brought down by medicine. Her mom assumed it was simply “a little bug — she'll get over it," Phillips told CNN, adding, "There wasn't any sign that would've told me that something was seriously wrong with her.”

But on Dec. 24, Jade’s father Stephen DeLucia found his daughter unresponsive in her bed and running a high fever. The family raced to Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, Iowa, and Jade had a seizure shortly after their arrival. Doctors agreed the little girl needed to be air-lifted to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital instead.

"I didn't think I was going to see her again at that point," Phillips told CNN. "I really didn't. Just from looking at her, I really honestly didn't think I was going to see her."

Thankfully, Phillips and her husband did see their daughter again, but the prognosis wasn’t good. Phillips was told Jade had suffered “significant brain damage” and was diagnosed with acute necrotizing encephalopathy — a swelling of the brain caused by the flu virus, which can be severe and, in many cases, fatal.

4-year-old Jade DeLucia went blind as a complication from the flu. (Photo: GoFundMe)

According to a 2006 study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, “The most severe form of influenza encephalopathy is acute necrotising encephalopathy. It is a severe disorder with a fatality of around 30 percent, and persisting neurodisability in around one third of survivors, associated with cerebral atrophy.” The study adds that the majority of cases are complications from getting influenza A infections, but influenza B “is responsible for around 10 percent” of cases.

A more recent study, published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal in 2017, looked at 13 cases of influenza-associated encephalitis/encephalopathy in Australian children under 14 years old and found that outcomes are “poor,” with 7 out of the 13 children dying from the flu-related complications.

However, Jade defied the odds. After days of being unresponsive and receiving steroids to bring down the inflammation, Jade finally opened her eyes on Jan. 1, saying, “‘Hi mommy’ and ‘you guys I’m a mess,’” according to a January 5 Facebook post on Phillips’ page.

"She is lucky to be alive," Theresa Czech, MD, Jade's neurologist at the University of Iowa, told CNN. "She's a little fighter. And I think she's super lucky."

How the flu can cause blindness

Jade’s condition continued to improve, but Phillips soon realized that her daughter couldn’t see, even though there was no damage to the 4-year-old’s eyes.

“Influenza can cause brain inflammation,” Aaron Milstone, MD, an associate hospital epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Any time the brain is inflamed, the nerves can be damaged.”

With Jade, the flu triggered the immune reaction acute necrotizing encephalopathy. “Sometimes people have a genetic risk for this type of reaction, but more often this happens randomly,” Jade's neurologist Czech tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Any part of the brain can be affected. There is a high risk of death when this happens. Those who recover can have any number of disabilities. In Jade’s case, the inflammation caused damage to her visual pathways leading to blindness.”

It’s not known whether Jade will get her vision back. "In about three to six months from now we'll know," the pediatric neurologist told CNN. “Whatever recovery she has at six months, that's likely all she's going to get."

Czech tells Yahoo Lifestyle: “I hope that she will recover her vision as her brain heals from this illness. If she does recover, it may take weeks to months and her recovery may not be complete.”

After nearly two weeks in the hospital, Jade was discharged on Jan. 9 (the family has a GoFundMe to help with their medical expenses). Phillips and her husband are happy that their daughter is alive and back home. “We are so blessed that out of everything that could have happened she’s still here with us,” Phillips wrote in a Jan. 9 Facebook post. “We didn’t lose our baby girl.”

Jade DeLucia in the hospital from complications from the flu. (Photo: GoFundMe)

What parents need to know

Milstone tells Yahoo Lifestyle that Jade’s complications from the flu aren’t common. “Blindness is a very rare complication from influenza,” he says.

That said, there are certain signs that parents should be aware of if their child develops the flu. 

“Parents should take their child to the doctor if they develop flu symptoms, such as a high fever, cough and sore throat,” Milstone tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If the flu worsens or the child becomes dehydrated, has trouble breathing, becomes very sleepy and is difficult to wake, or if the parents have other concerns, they should also seek medical care.”

Milstone adds, “On rare occasions, the influenza virus can be deadly, so parents should check in with their child’s doctor if they are concerned about their child’s symptoms.”

The 2019-2020 flu season — which is already shaping up to be one of the worst the U.S. has seen in years — has been particularly harmful to children. In mid-December, the CDC reported that six children had died from the flu. But the most recent CDC statistics show that number has climbed to 32 children.

“Children are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are not fully developed,” Randell Wexler, MD, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Yahoo Lifestyle. “In addition, children with asthma — as well as other chronic diseases — are more susceptible, and they do not respond to a viral insult the same way adults do. Children under the age of five in general, and those less than one year of age in particular, are most at risk.”

Flu vaccines can significantly help reduce hospitalizations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2014 study found that flu vaccines reduced children’s risk of being admitted to pediatric intensive care units for life-threatening influenza by 74 percent during the 2010-2012 flu seasons. Further, flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent, according to the CDC.

“You can get the flu even if you have had the flu shot, but you are less likely to be hospitalized or suffer severe complications like Jade,” Czech tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Phillips told CNN that Jade and her sister got flu shots in March 2019, but the mom mistakenly thought it was effective for a whole year. She also didn’t realize that the viruses change each flu season so a new vaccine was needed for the 2019-2020 season. Phillips is now hoping to raise awareness of the importance of children getting a flu vaccine every year. 

"If I can stop one child from getting sick, that's what I want to do," Phillips told CNN. "It's terrible to see your child suffer like this."

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