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Community immunity.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

It's hard to mine even a grain of hope from the darkness of a little boy's death, but Calandra Burgess is trying.

Burgess is the mother of 5-year-old Ronan Burgess, whose death from the flu less than two weeks ago put a spotlight on an illness that many people still take for granted. And since then the spotlight also has fallen on Calandra, who is speaking out on the need for children and adults to get a flu shot in hopes of preventing another parent from suffering such a devastating loss.

The good news, if there can be any, is that it seems to be working, at least at the local level.

In the two weeks before Ronan's death became known, Lane County's main health clinic in downtown Eugene had received no phone calls asking for flu shots, said Jason Davis, spokesman for the county health department. On the Monday after a story on Ronan appeared in The Register-Guard, clinic staff fielded 100 calls between 9 a.m. and noon.

"I think 'inundated' would be the way to describe it," Davis said. "And we're thankful for it."

That's because flu season is in full swing and has yet to reach its peak in Oregon. Reports of flu or flu-like sickness have risen sharply each week for the past month and are still rising, both in Lane County and statewide, Davis said.

According to state and national reports, flu is now widespread in Oregon. At least eight adult deaths have been reported, and the number of cases of flu-like sickness statewide is now four times the baseline level, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Almost all of those who have had the flu this year have had the H1N1 type, the same strain that caused a nationwide pandemic in 2009. It has hit younger people especially hard and is the strain that killed Ronan, even though he had received the vaccine.

Ronan received the nasal version of the vaccine in early November. He was not among the limited group of children under age 8 for whom two doses of the vaccine is recommended.

Calandra Burgess hopes people won't avoid a flu shot because Ronan got sick even after being inoculated. Even though a small percentage of people who get the vaccine still get the flu, the large majority don't, and that means they won't spread it to others and far fewer people overall will get sick.

That's what public health specialists call "community immunity." It means that if the vaccination rate rose to about 95 percent, the flu would no longer spread in seasonal outbreaks and very few ever would get sick, Davis said. However, the current vaccination rate is only about 30 percent.

Burgess said she was heartened to hear that vaccinations have bumped up sharply after Ronan's story appeared. But she's also been inundated herself.

The story has gone national, even worldwide, leading to a flood of requests from television stations and other media for interviews. The story has appeared in newspapers and on network affiliates around the country - Burgess' sister called to say she had seen Ronan on CNN - and Burgess said getting the story out has helped her deal with the loss.

"To know that they're talking about my son and advocating for more vaccines, it's been very inspiring to me to see people pulling together like that," Burgess said. "It's been quite helpful. It gives me a purpose."

But the loss, compounded by devastating injuries to Ronan's older brother when he and his dad were hit by a drunken driver in 2012, has exacted a financial toll as well. Many people who heard the family's story have offered to help, but until recently they had no way to contribute.

That's changed with the creation of the Ronan Burgess Donation Account. Contributions can be made at any U.S. Bank branch, and the family will use the money to help with expenses and to hold a memorial wake for Ronan on Jan. 19 that will be open to everyone.

But Burgess said the best thing people can do to remember Ronan is still the simple act of getting a flu shot.

"If we can protect as many people as we can, maybe the flu season won't be so bad," she said. "If we can keep even one kid from getting the flu and dying, then Ronan's death won't be in vain."

Ronan Burgess donation account

A fund to help the Burgess family hold a wake for the 5-year-old and meet other expenses

The account: Donations can be made at any branch of U.S. Bank

The wake: The family will hold a public memorial at 4 p.m. Jan. 19 at Putter's, 1156 Highway 99N
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Title Annotation:Health
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 10, 2014
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