The Guatemalan boy who died in U.S. custody on Christmas Eve had the flu. The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator has confirmed 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo tested positive for Influenza B, though his precise cause of death has not been officially determined.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the boy started showing symptoms of illness early in the day on Christmas Eve. By the time the day ended, he was dead. Texas Biomedical Research Institute scientist Jean Patterson said the flu can sometimes cause serious illness in otherwise healthy children — and quickly — but they don't know why.
"That's a question we ask ourselves all the time: Why would a reasonably healthy child or even a young adult suddenly die of something most people get sick and recover from. And we don't really know the answer," Patterson said.
In some cases, Patterson said, it may be that strong, healthy immune systems go into overdrive when fighting invaders like influenza, causing organ-damaging inflammation. The resulting lung inflammation and associated fluid build-up can cause respiratory distress. Add in a secondary bacterial infection, and this immune response can lead to death.
Smaller children can also dehydrate more quickly than adults, Patterson said, which can be a dangerous complication of the flu.
It can be difficult to contain a flu outbreak in a crowded place like a detention center. Influenza is passed through droplets in the air — when you cough, sneeze, or even just talk — and it can spread to others up to six feet away. Patterson said while she isn’t familiar with conditions at the detention centers, anytime a lot of people are housed in one place, flu can burn through the population like wildfire.
"You bring in a lot of people from around the country, put them all together — it’s the same as a college dorm — you bring them from all over, put them together in close quarters and they spread diseases," Patterson said.
Patterson said the best protection against the flu is the flu vaccine. Influenza B, the strain with which Alonzo was infected, is included in this year’s flu shot.
Following Alonzo’s death — and that of a seven year old girl earlier this month — the Department of Homeland Security has ordered additional medical exams for all migrant children now in custody.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie