(CNN) — Citing an unusually long flu season, the Dominican Republic reported Friday that thousands of the country’s babies had become ill last year.
As of December 28, 116 children under age 1 had died and 13,800 had been hospitalized in the country, said Diego Herrera, director of the country’s National Emergency Commission.
The wave of cases is unusual: the virus is usually not a concern in the island’s youngest age group, he said.
Sixty percent of the 6,000 suspected cases reported in November involved children, and nearly half the cases — 8,800 — involved babies under age 1, said the commission.
While babies can be susceptible to infection, infections in infants have more serious consequences.
The Dominican Republic has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world, Herrera said.
Because of these numbers, Herrera said the country’s next flu season would begin with an immunization campaign.
Why do so many babies get sick?
Experts have not decided the cause of the surge in the Dominican Republic, but blame it on two factors: a busy travel season and a weaker B strain of the influenza virus.
The percentage of babies that get infected with any type of the flu is usually equal to or lower than in adults, but the Y strain of the flu has been particularly active in the Dominican Republic this year, said Dr. Michael Jhung, a health scientist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Y strain produces an infection known as acinetobacter baumannii, which is so severe that it kills 6,000 babies and young children a year, the CDC estimates.
“A large proportion of respiratory specimens we’re seeing have Acinetobacter baumannii with it, so it’s definitely a serious strain,” Jhung said.
Based on the B strain’s activity in the Dominican Republic, perhaps other Southeast Asian countries are starting to see the same, Jhung said.
When CNN spoke with Dr. Craig Stewart, a pediatrician at Wausau Memorial Hospital in Wausau, Wisconsin, he said that while there isn’t much he can do to prevent a baby from getting the flu, there are steps he recommends parents take to keep their children healthy during flu season.
Stewart said mothers should watch their infants for any coughs or other breathing problems, stay home if they start to feel sick and keep their children warm and dry.
The CDC and the World Health Organization have reported increased use of Tamiflu over the past several years, but there is still a great need for pediatricians to offer the drug for babies and children with influenza-like illness, Stewart said.
But Tamiflu is not the only vaccine that can protect against the flu. Experts recommend the flu vaccine to everyone 6 months and older.
Most people will get sick with the flu in this season, including most of those who already have the illness, and others with a higher risk of complications — such as those who have health problems that make them more vulnerable to infection — will also get sick, the CDC estimates.
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” Jhung said. “Influenza season can continue for a few more weeks yet, and influenza tends to peak in mid-winter, so you still have time to get vaccinated.”