(NEW YORK) — In just eight months at his new school in Rifle, Colo., Austin Booth made a name for himself as a star athlete, honor student and a popular classmate with a promising future.
But within six days of contracting the flu last January, Austin was dead. He was 17. His parents had never even considered giving a flu shot to their otherwise healthy teen.
“It was flu season and we knew other kids who were sick and we didn’t think that much about it,” said his mother, Regina Booth, 42. “It was pretty tough — and it seems like just yesterday.” She now annually immunizes her four other children, aged 3 to 16.
In the past four years, the CDC has changed its recommendations and now urges all Americans six months and older get a flu shot. Children under the age of 9, who are getting immunized for the first time, should get two doses, one month apart.
Booth said she still cannot believe how sudden her son’s death was. On Tuesday night, he had started and played a full basketball game. By Wednesday night, he was coughing up blood and was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia.
His condition got worse. He struggled to breathe, and was intubated before being airlifted to another facility. Soon after, Austin had to be taken off of a ventilator and manually “bagged.” Tests showed the teen positive for the virulent infection MRSA.
Hundreds of Austin’s new friends showed up for his funeral. The basketball team retired his #2 jersey.
“We had never gotten the flu shot — not any of us,” she said. “We thought, we don’t need it, we are healthy. If we get the shot it will make us sick.”
Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said that people are fooled into thinking that influenza, a serious respiratory infection, is just like a cold.
“People use the word ‘flu’ very casually to refer to a whole variety of winter illnesses, including a stuffy nose, and that tends to trivialize it,” said Schaffner. “It is a serious viral infection — it wreaks havoc on all the body’s systems.”
“Although it can be mild and often is, it is often very, very serious and can strike an otherwise normal child and put them in intensive care, usually within 48 hours.” He added that while serious complications occur most often among older people, about a hundred American children die every year from the disease.
With 120 million doses of influenza vaccine given each year in the U.S. alone, it is “wonderfully safe,” with side effects including a sore arm or, rarely, a day of fever. But despite being covered by insurance carriers, only half of all children are immunized.
Schaffner reiterated the vaccine cannot give a person the flu. “That’s an urban myth,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio