Gianna Wehrkamp was a “fearless, funny and healthy” 2 ½-year-old girl when she came down with a mild fever in January 2015. She was dead less than 48 hours later.
Gianna’s sudden death was attributed to influenza, a contagious respiratory virus that affected a reported 8,000 North Dakotans last year.
The surprise death of her daughter, who had not received flu vaccine, prompted Angie Wehrkamp to publicly speak about the importance of getting the whole family vaccinated against the flu each fall.
By sharing her story, she said, she can make a bigger impact than with statistics alone.
“We did not know that the flu was so unpredictable, and we didn’t know that healthy children could die from the flu,” Wehrkamp said. “We want to make sure other people know that (death) is a very real possibility.”
Wehrkamp, along with Gov. Doug Burgum and others, spoke at the state Capitol on Tuesday about the importance of getting a flu shot.
“Last year in North Dakota there were 8,000 reported cases of influenza,” Burgum said. “If you’ve got the flu, you’ve put other people at risk, so this is not only for yourself but for your co-workers, your friends and others.”
Burgum said he’s “made it a point to get a flu shot every year for decades and decades,” crediting his family’s background in public health as personal encouragement. Both Burgum’s grandfather and mother, Dr. Burton Kilbourne and Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, worked for public health agencies in the Fargo area.
Native Americans are almost two times as likely to die from pneumonia and the flu, in part due to the lack of health care resources on reservations, said Brad Hawk, Indian Health Systems administrator for the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. He said his office is focused on communicating the importance of preventative care to North Dakota’s tribal communities.
“We’re trying to get out in front of this,” Hawk said.
The flu is “unpredictable” from year to year, but most cases of the flu reported in North Dakota fall between January and March, said Levi Schlosser, an influenza surveillance coordinator and epidemiologist with the Department of Health. Nationwide, flu season is considered to run between October and May.
Washing hands, staying home when sick and covering coughs and sneezes are effective ways to prevent the spread of the flu virus, Schlosser said. But he emphasized that the “best and easiest” way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated.
Some flu shot critics have questioned whether they are necessary or safe. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 6 months of age and older get the vaccine “with rare exception.” The agency notes there are potential side effects and small risks with a shot, and says there are some people who should not get a shot or should talk to their doctor first.
Burgum, Hawk and Wehrkamp backed up their comments by getting a flu shot in front of the audience. The shots were administered by Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health nurse Naomi Friesz.
“I think this might be the earliest I’ve ever gotten a flu shot,” Burgum joked.
Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com