BALTIMORE (CBS BALTIMORE) — Nearly 43 percent of American kids who died from the flu were perfectly healthy beforehand – and the healthier kids died faster.

According to a new Center for Disease Control and Prevention study released Thursday, 43 percent of American children who died from flu were perfectly healthy beforehand, and worse, the healthier kids died in nearly half the time as those who had high-risk conditions – an average of four days versus seven days.

Given how unpredictable flu can be and how fast it can kill, the CDC’s Dr. Karen Wong told MSNBC, vaccination is the best protection for kids and adults alike.

“Because the study did find a lot of otherwise healthy kids who did have influenza-associated deaths and because we know deaths can happen fast, prevention is best, and the best prevention is the vaccine,” Wong, who led the study, told MSNBC.

The study’s findings, presented at a meeting of infectious disease specialists in San Diego, seem counterintuitive, and Wong says there is no clear explanation. “It is a very dangerous disease,” she said.

There are two theories about why healthier kids might succumb more quickly. One is that the parents of kids with asthma, Down syndrome or other health problems are already very vigilant and highly familiar with the health care system, and they seek treatment the moment their children start to sniffle. There’s an antiviral drug called Tamiflu that can help prevent the worst effects of influenza if patients get it within a day or two of being infected.

The other theory is that for some reason the immune system goes into overdrive in some healthy children. “The doctors called it a perfect storm,” said Regina Booth, a woman whose son, Austin, was killed by the flu in 2011.

A doctor who reviewed Austin’s record said there was nothing the medical team didn’t try.

“If I would have taken him to the doctor sooner they would have said he has the flu and sent him home,” Booth told MSNBC. “Nothing would have changed. The only think I look back at now — I wish we would have gotten the flu shot that year.”

Although the CDC says everyone over the age of six months should get a flu shot, most still don’t. Flu kills anywhere between 3,000 people a year to 49,000 people a year, but only 51.5 percent of children aged 6 months to 17 years were vaccinated last year. Just under 75 percent of babies aged up to 2 were vaccinated. A third of kids in Austin’s age group, 13 to 17, got vaccinated.

Wong’s team looked at all the children who died of flu between 2004 and 2012. “Of the 781 with a known medical history, 333 (43 percent) had no high-risk conditions; of children with high-risk conditions, 57 percent had neurologic disorders, 45 percent had asthma or other pulmonary disease, and 22 percent had genetic or chromosomal disorders,” they wrote in the study.


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