By Jessica Bagley
Niagara Gazette — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — A first-grader at St. Amelia School who had been diagnosed with influenza died Monday night, marking the Erie County's first pediatric death associated with the flu for at least three years.
A number of parents said they received a letter from the school informing them of the student's death, and Erie County Health Department confirmed the death was associated with influenza, although it's not known what will be listed as the official cause of death.
The school is not releasing the name of the student, although sources say the victim was a girl.
Although those with underlying conditions such as HIV and cancer can increase one's susceptibility to the disease, Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said the student was not one she would "otherwise expect to become very ill from the flu."
"It's such a sad occurrence," Burstein said. "It's a very serious disease. It kills people we expect to be at risk, but it can also kill young people who are otherwise healthy."
The tragedy comes during the area's worst flu season since 2009, the year of H1N1. By the end of January, Burstein said the number of hospital visits surpassed those from 2009.
In Niagara County, health official confirmed a 32-year-old woman died last month at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, but it wasn't confirmed at the time that it was in fact the flu.
"The flu that is circulating is predominantly two new flu strains," she said. "So unless people have been immunized, they don't have any protective immunity from prior years, when usually, everyone has some protection. All bets are off this year."
Burstein urged all those who haven't yet received the vaccine to do so.
"There is no such thing as being too late for a vaccine," she said. "It only takes about two weeks to become effective, and we see the flu in Erie County all year long. It's not too late."
The vaccine remains effective through the end of June.
Those with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and obesity, as well as those who are elderly, are pregnant, breastfeeding, are under the age of 2, health care providers and those who are immunosuppressed are extremely susceptible to flu complications.
"People that are around at-risk populations should also absolutely get a vaccine every year," she said.Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150