THESE are the young faces of the deadly flu epidemic sweeping Australia, leaving their families broke and desperate for help.
Brock Gilbert's mother Tegan-Lee took her son to casualty after he began to exhibit flu-like symptoms, including a temperature of 40C, but they were turned away because he seemed content. Three days later, the baby from Nowra, NSW, was unable to even lift his head and was sent to emergency.
The next day, Brock began vomiting, could not open his eyes and started having 10-minute-long seizures. He was diagnosed with influenza A and bacterial meningitis and put on antibiotics.
The four-month-old was flown to a children's hospital in Sydney where an MRI revealed swelling on the brain, a blood clot and a possible stroke. He has now contracted rhinovirus and salmonella in hospital and is having daily injections to dissolve the clot. His parents won't know of any long term effects for several months, and the bills are piling off as they remain at their baby's bedside.
Caleb Logan, 12, was taken to hospital in Moreton Bay, Queensland with a temperature, cough and sore throat and chest - which developed into diarrhoea, lethargy and vomiting.
He was diagnosed with double pneumonia, influenza B and a secondary bacterial infection, spending six weeks in hospital after being placed in an induced coma.
"He couldn't breathe on his own," his father Darren wrote on the family's fundraising page. "We later were told Tuesday night that Caleb was very sick and had sepsis and that we had to prepare ourselves that he may die."
The boy is now on the road to recovery, but Australia's health services are buckling under the pressure as the flu rate soars, fuelled by a mutant strain of influenza A (H3N2) thought to be responsible for many deaths, even though it was included in this year's vaccine.
At least 288 flu-related deaths have been reported this year, and the number is thought to be even higher. Rosie Andersen, 8, died two weeks ago after falling ill with the flu and going into cardiac arrest. Her father Christian Brealey said his "beautiful princess" had been sick for a few days, but the family from Victoria had believed she was just suffering from a bad cold. "Never in my worst dreams did I think it would end up like this," he said in a statement.
Nathan Brown, 19, died from complications after contracting influenza A as well as acute pneumonia and a staph infection in his lungs and heart. The teenager from Lake Macquarie, NSW, was put in a medically-induced coma and suffered lung collapse and kidney failure. Canberra mother of two Jennifer Thew died from acute respiratory distress syndrome after contracting influenza and young dad Ben Ihlow also died from the flu on Father's Day.
"Jen was a beautiful, gentle soul and, above all, the most devoted mother," her family said in a statement. "We are absolutely heartbroken that she has been taken from us in such cruel circumstances. We are so grateful to the medical teams in Canberra and Sydney that fought so hard to save her life."
A record-breaking 172,247 cases have been confirmed by the Department of Health in 2017: 86,567 in New South Wales; 44,866 in Queensland; 17,326 in South Australia; 13,654 in Victoria; 3656 in Western Australia; 2707 in Tasmania; 2352 in the Australian Capital Territory and 1119 in the Northern Territory.
That's a 156 per cent increase on the number reported by this time last year, according to Immunisation Coalition statistics. And the health service believes the number is even higher, with a delay in reporting thanks to administrative backlogs as officials struggle to handle the spike.
The rates of influenza are highest among people aged 85 years or older, with a secondary peak for children aged 5 to 9 as well as unusually high rates among under-fives.
Mercedes King, 14, went to bed feeling ill one night and woke at 3am struggling to breathe. Queensland doctors discovered her organs were shutting down and placed her in an induced coma. She had to be flown from Mackay to Brisbane with her mother Becky Seadon for specialised care, while her father Troy and three siblings packed everything into the car and drove 13 hours to be with the young girl. "They have the weight of the world on their shoulders right now," her aunt Renee Shannon wrote on GoFundMe.
Mercedes was diagnosed with influenza B, pneumonia, sepsis and an unidentified bacterial infection and put on a kidney dialysis machine.
The super strain of influenza A is wreaking particular havoc in nursing homes, with an eighth elderly residents dying at a regional Victorian nursing home last month following an outbreak that affected a further 123 residents and staff. Six elderly men and women died at a Tasmanian nursing home in August.
"Every now and then a major change occurs. The flu virus is very clever, it has evolved an ability to change its covering and mutate fractionally to get past defences," Australian Medical Association vice president Dr Tony Bartone told News Corp Australia. "Every now and then ... it will change significantly so there will be a worldwide pandemic and millions of people have died during each of those pandemics."
HOW TO PROTECT AGAINST FLU
• Getting an annual flu vaccine every year is the most effective way to prevent influenza - although there are questions over whether this year's was effective
• Flu shots are typically only effective for four months, so if you're considered high risk and received your jab before June, get a booster
• Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol rub; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth as germs spread this way and avoid close contact with sick people if possible
• Treat the symptoms with bed rest, adequate fluid intake and pain-relieving medication
• Cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, and throw away tissues immediately
• If you or your child is sick, wait at least 24 hours before returning to work, school or daycare
• See your doctor if your symptoms get worse
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