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Flu can be deadly and needs to be properly diagnosed

The influenza season of 2017-2018 has been quite lethal thus far. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated figures indicate that the total number of pediatric deaths from this flu reached 53 as of January 27. Yet it is not just the very young, old and debilitated who are succumbing to the virus.

One Latrobe resident in the prime of his life died back in December after being ill for just a few days. After Christmas, he left work due to illness and sought treatment at Westmoreland County Hospital's emergency room. There, the staff recognized the severity of his illness and had him transported by helicopter to Pittsburgh's UPMC Presbyterian Hospital.

The following day, he was dead. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office announced his cause of death as the flu complicated by "septic shock and multiple organ failure." He was 21.

Influenza still a killer

It's certainly no news that the flu can be a killer. Generations ago, it decimated populations when outbreaks arose. We are not facing a new disease with influenza. But it can still be a challenge to medical professionals to treat. That challenge can be made even more difficult if doctors misdiagnose the condition in their patients.

In a case last month in another state, a formerly healthy 36-year-old was felled by the flu. As she was immersed in wedding plans for her best friend, the maid of honer suddenly developed flu symptoms and went to the ER for treatment. After being diagnosed by the flu there, she was sent home. She returned the next day in such bad shape that she was placed on a ventilator. She never recovered and died three days later.

Her loved ones are asking why the physicians at the ER failed to see just how medically fragile she was on her first visit when she was sent home. They wonder if an additional day of intensive in-patient medical treatment could have made a difference in her surviving this deadly bout with the flu.

It's a valid -- if unanswerable -- question. This death was just one of many unexpected deaths attributed to this year's flu season. Medicine being an inexact science, physicians are not all-knowing sages who can predict with any certainty which patients are destined to die from illnesses that millions routinely survive.

That being said, medical professionals must accept responsibility for any diagnostic errors they make if they fail to identify life-threatening symptoms in their patients. It may not be possible to eradicate flu deaths in every single case. Still, ER and other doctors must do all that they can, in keeping with the medical standards of care, to diagnose and treat their patients suffering from the flu.

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