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Impact Story: Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Families Fighting Flu

Posted on May 3, 2024
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When what would eventually become Families Fighting Flu started forming 20 years ago, it was under circumstances in which no family wants to find themselves. Our founding families had recently gone through the worst pain imaginable–losing a loved one–and were figuring out how to navigate their lives without their children and loved ones who passed away after battling the flu. 

“It’s still very rare for families to deal with sudden deaths from illness,” said Alissa Kanowitz, whose 4-year-old daughter Amanda succumbed to the flu in 2004. “It’s not a car accident, cancer, or long-term illness where you have time to prepare. It’s a lonely, isolating place to be.”

Twenty years later, our organization not only consists of families who have lost a loved one to the flu or had a family member suffer serious medical complications as a result of the flu but also healthcare professionals and other advocates committed to flu education and prevention. 

As we commemorate this 20th anniversary of our founding, we wanted to look back on some of our history and the families that have contributed to the cause along the way.

4-Year-Old Amanda Kanowitz

New York, March 1, 2004

Burying a loved one is never easy but it’s made even more difficult when you find out that their death may have been preventable had you had the right recommendations in place. At the time of our founding, medical experts did not recommend that healthy children receive flu vaccinations. As the mother of a healthy 4-year-old, Alissa Kanowitz was one of many parents who followed the national recommendations, unaware that a flu vaccine could make the difference between life and death.

On February 28, 2004, her daughter, 4½-year-old Amanda Kanowitz, fell ill with a cough and fever. Despite staying home and spending the day playing her favorite games with her family, she felt worse the next morning but appeared to have nothing more than a typical virus. Her family doctor told her to keep hydrated but that there was no cause for alarm. Yet Alissa and Rich found Amanda lifeless in her bed the very next morning.  Within just 48 hours of getting sick, Amanda died from her illness due to an extreme immune reaction to influenza.

“We owe it to our children to give some meaning to their lives and honor their memories by helping to prevent this from happening to other families. This is their legacy.” Alissa said of her decision to get involved with founding Families Fighting Flu. 

In 2006, thanks to our families’ involvement the U.S. Centers for Disease Control expanded influenza vaccination recommendations up to 59 months.

Today, Amanda’s family is still actively involved with Families Fighting Flu. Her mother continues to serve as a director on the Board of Directors, and her father, Richard, was the founding president who served for 14 years. Her sister Lexi, is a founding member of the Junior Board and Co-President of the Families Fighting Flu Scarsdale High School Club, and her cousin, Kaitlyn, serves as the president of the Families Fighting Flu Junior Board.

4-Year-Old Jessica Stein

Virginia, Feb. 2, 2002

The Stein Family co-founded Families Fighting Flu following the death of their 4-year-old daughter, Jessica. In January 2002, she was a healthy, bubbly preschooler who caught a virus at school but seemed to be on the mend.

By the end of the month, she was feeling better. She even attended a birthday party and played with friends at a local park. However, a few days later, she developed a mild fever and started vomiting. Her parents kept her home, and the next day, her doctor’s office told her she likely suffered a relapse from the previous illness and did not need to come in. Later in the week, her breathing was labored, so her parents took her to the emergency room, where doctors ran various tests. On Feb. 2, 2002, Jessica died of viral myocarditis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall that can result from influenza.

“I never really got to know her, which has always been upsetting,” says her brother Eric Stein, now a Marketing, Communications, and Program Specialist at Families Fighting Flu. “You never really think about how different my life would be if I had an older sister present. Ever since I was old enough, I wanted to give back and for my family to be involved in putting on Rock Out the Flu is special because I know it means a ton to my parents and it’s giving back in a way that is very special to us.”

Her parents, Gary and Doris, serve on the Families Fighting Flu Board of Directors, and all three children, Eric, Johnny, and Katie, serve on our Junior Board. The family also hosts a bi-annual fundraiser called Rock Out The Flu, set for April 20, 2024, at Solace Outpost in Falls Church, VA.

3-Year-Old Emily Lastinger

Texas, February 2, 2004

On Jan. 28, 2004, 3½-year-old Emily Lastinger took a long nap and began to show signs that she was feeling ill. Strep throat was circulating in her preschool, so Emily’s parents kept her home from school and took her to her doctor to make sure she was OK. When a nurse performed a nasal swab test on Emily, she determined that she had the flu and provided anti-viral medication in the hopes that it would lessen the severity of the illness. 

Despite Emily’s symptoms worsening over the weekend, her pediatrician reassured her parents that vomiting and fever were typical flu symptoms and advised them to ensure she stayed hydrated. Seeing no improvement, Emily’s parents scheduled a doctor’s appointment for February 2, 2004. Before they could take her in, they were instructed to give her fluids every 15 minutes. After preparing for the appointment, Emily laid down in her parents’ bed to rest and watch TV. Tragically, she was discovered lifeless just 15 minutes later.

5-Year-Old Alana Yaksich

Michigan, February 3, 2003

Five-year-old Alana Yaksich spent a day with her family despite a low-grade fever. 

Although she had a low-grade fever from a recent sore throat (for which she had finished a course of antibiotics), Alana enjoyed the afternoon feeling healthy and surrounded by her family but later that evening, she developed a 106-degree fever and was rushed to the emergency room. Within 24 hours of her arrival at the local hospital, Alana died of flu-related complications that caused swelling and injury to her brain.

“I never knew the flu could kill until Alana died,” said her father, Zachary.

No One Thinks the Flu Can Kill…Until it Does

This has been a common refrain over the 20 years that Families Fighting Flu has collected stories from loved ones to share with the public in hopes of building awareness of the severe complications of the flu and the necessity of vaccination for everyone 6 months of age and older. 

Families Fighting Flu was instrumental in establishing the CDC’s 2010 universal recommendation for flu vaccination to include all individuals six months of age and older, yet vaccination remains low on the priority list for many people until it’s too late.

“For a while, it almost became status quo to get the flu vaccine,” explains Alissa Kanowitz. “People were getting regular flu vaccines for their families, but recently, there has been such a backlash against getting vaccines many see as optional. It’s been a big challenge, but sharing our stories is the most effective way to get our message out there.”

Learn More About Families Fighting Flu

Families Fighting Flu (FFF), a national, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to honoring loved ones who have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza, commemorates 20 years of advocacy protecting children, families, and all communities from the flu. Our 20th anniversary is a testament to our dedication and enduring efforts to protect families. It is also a sobering reminder that we are not done yet.

In sharing personal stories, FFF strives to increase awareness about the seriousness of the flu, reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths each year, drive up vaccination rates for everyone six months and older, and encourage symptomatic individuals to get tested and receive appropriate treatment. Learn more about our mission and resources here so that you can empower your family to stay healthy this flu season.

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