Deadly Outbreak

updated 12/22/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/22/2003 01:00AM

As Sunday-afternoon children's parties go, the Nov. 30 birthday celebration in a quiet neighborhood of Pueblo, Colo., was a standard free-for-all. "My son Dezmond was just learning how to throw rocks," says Brian Huckabay, 24, the father of 20-month-old twins Dezmond and Diego. "He would pick up a rock and throw it, then pick it up again and throw it farther. Before you know it, he was zinging the rocks." But by the following morning the boy was showing signs of illness. "My hijo [Spanish for son] woke up sick," recalls Huckabay. "We thought it was just a cold. He had a runny nose, coughing and wheezing."

The illness proved to be far worse. After four days of increasingly grave symptoms and two trips to the doctor, Dezmond was pronounced dead of the flu—one of at least 11 children around the country to die from what health officials are already calling one of the worst flu seasons in decades. "In my 30 years on the job I've never seen an outbreak this bad," says Dr. James Todd, director of epidemiology at Denver Children's Hospital, where four of the deaths have occurred. Nationwide doctors are scrambling to cope with a new, virulent form of the virus as well as with a shortage of vaccines to help fight it. About 36,000 people die each year from the flu; according to Dr. Martin Blaser of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the death toll this year could rise to 50,000.

Although authorities are quick to point out that the elderly account for more than 90 percent of fatalities caused by the flu, this year's unusually high death toll among young children so early in the season serves as a reminder that patients under 2 can be among the most vulnerable. "We build our immunity as we grow up," says Dr. Octavio Ramilo, an infectious disease specialist at Children's Medical Center, Dallas. "The first encounter with the virus is likely to cause a severe disease because children haven't been exposed before."

Brian Huckabay and his common-law wife, Janelle Portillos, had no inkling of the danger their son was facing when he woke up feeling ill after the birthday party down the street. "Janelle had taken the twins to get a flu shot about a week before," says Huckabay, a short-order cook at a restaurant in Pueblo. A day later, when Dezmond's twin, Diego, became sick as well, Brian called a doctor who recommended giving the children ibuprofen or Children's Tylenol to keep their fevers down. But the following night Dezmond lay on the couch, "covered up, fussy and not even playing with a single toy," says Huckabay. Portillos, 19, a nurse's aide, realized something was wrong and drove the twins to the hospital.

There the babies were examined by a doctor and sent home with a prescription for an antiflu drug. The next morning Portillos woke and gave the boys their medicine. But just three hours later, her mother, Cicilia, 52, discovered Dezmond cold and unresponsive. By the time Huckabay rushed to his son from work, police and paramedics were swarming on the lawn. "I knew in my heart that my son was gone," he says. "The boy was fine on Sunday, and three days later, everything had changed forever."

Although Dezmond had been given a flu shot, in all likelihood his inoculation had not yet taken effect. Adult vaccinations begin to offer protection after two weeks; the waiting period is even longer for babies, who normally require two shots spaced a month apart. Next year, when the vaccine supply is likely to be increased, doctors will be urging parents to give every child over 6 months a flu shot.

Perhaps that will help prevent what happened to 14-month-old Jeremy Beaumont of Colorado Springs. On Thanksgiving Day he, like Dezmond Huckabay, came down with a cough, and after a second trip to the hospital on Dec. 1 was diagnosed with the flu. He was sent home with instructions for his mother, Lindsey, 18, a homemaker, to give him Children's Tylenol and Motrin. His condition did improve, but on the morning of Dec. 3, Lindsey reached into Jeremy's crib to check his diaper. "He looked like he was sleeping," she says, "but I rolled him over, and he didn't wake up." When Jeremy reached Memorial Hospital by ambulance, he was already dead. Today, a devastated Lindsey—whose husband, Alvin, 26, a sergeant serving with the Army's First Armored Division in Iraq, returned to Colorado for their son's funeral on Dec. 11—has only words of caution for other parents. "A 12-year-old can say, can't breathe,'" she says. "Babies can't."

Susan Schindehette. Vickie Bane in Colorado and Giovanna Breu in Chicago

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