One Air Force doctor hopes a viral social media post about her family's tragedy helps inspire others to get the flu vaccine.
Laura Sidari's son Leon was 4 years old when he died on Christmas morning last year, just hours after being diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia and influenza, commonly known as the flu.
Sidari, whose husband is also an Air Force doctor, had been waiting for an upcoming well child visit to get Leon his annual flu shot, she wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared almost 26,000 times. But Leon never made it.
"Like roughly half of the children who die annually, he did not have a history of prior medical problems," she wrote in her post. "His lungs were destroyed by bacterial pneumonia secondary to the flu. He died rapidly, only two days after showing general flu symptoms."
Leon was one of 180 children who died from the flu last year, she said.
Sidari said her stance on the flu shot is entirely her own and informed by her own experience. She asked that her rank and duty station not be included in this story. Still, both the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs place priority on the vaccine by making it required for troops and free for families and veterans.
Leon, she said, was a healthy, "really typical" kid before his brief illness.
"He never had any serious medical problems ... He loved green. He loved soccer. He was really big into astronomy, particularly suns and moons. He was super gentle," she told Military.com. "He was my movie night buddy and, being my oldest, he really shaped me into a mom."
When Leon came down with general flu-like symptoms two days before Christmas, Sidari said they treated his fever, fed him soup and had him watch cartoons. When he woke up the next morning, however, something was clearly very wrong. Leon was rushed to the emergency room and admitted to the ICU. By early the next morning, he was gone.
Sidari said the flu shot reduces the risk of flu for healthy kids by 65 percent. This year, she is using the hashtag #FluShotsForLeon and asking families to share photos of their kids if Leon's story inspires them to vaccinate.
Her post and one like it she shared last year have sparked controversy, Sidari said. Some commenters have even claimed she is lying.
"There were people that said my son wasn't real, my story is fake, it's put together by the government," she said.
While she respects the right of each person to have their own opinion about vaccination, Sidari said, she encourages parents to look to official sources for information.
"There's a lot of conflicting information out there about vaccines, but we really need to depend upon the experts," she said. "Really, my recommendation is to go to the places with the experts."