Sharing stories: One nonprofit's mission to prevent influenza

Mar 25, 2018

In the wake of another fatal flu season in the U.S., national nonprofit Families Fighting Flu is spreading awareness about influenza and the vaccine that can prevent its fatal effects. Serese Marotta, chief operating officer, joined the organization in 2010 and has fully supported the group’s purpose ever since.

JoJo smiles during a family vacation at Disney World.

Marotta said her experience with her son, who died of complications from the flu late in 2009, changed her perspective on the effects influenza can have on those who are infected.

“Even though I have always vaccinated myself and my family against the flu, I had no idea that thousands of people were losing their lives to flu every year, including healthy children and adults,” Marotta said. “So, one of the first things that I wanted to do after [my son] Joseph passed away is connect with other families who had suffered a similar loss.”

Marotta found Families Fighting Flu, which, since its establishment in 2005, has been providing a way for families of flu victims and survivors to find strength in each other.

“It was kind of like a coming home for me because all of a sudden, here were these families that had gone through the same thing that I went through,” Marotta said. “And these families actually had gotten together…and said, ‘We need to do something about this.’”

Shortly after getting involved with the organization, Marotta was asked to sit on the board of directors. In 2016, she became the chief operating officer for the organization. She has helped Families Fighting Flu to fulfill its mission of educating people to prevent future flu epidemics.

“It’s really about raising awareness, that we want people to understand that the flu is a serious disease,” Marotta said. “What we really want to do…is to save other families from suffering a similar loss. We want to make something good come out of our tragedies.”

"We have this silent killer that’s here in the United States. I’m hoping that with our messaging, with our education and our advocacy work, that people start paying attention to influenza."

Often, Families Fighting Flu members share their stories with as many people as they can reach, believing this personal touch can make far more of an impact than statistics.

“We have found that these stories, our stories, really resonate with people,” Marotta said. “We all like to think, ‘Oh, but that would never happen to me.’ And all of a sudden, when one of our families steps forward and shares their story…people can relate to that, and they take that to heart.”

Families Fighting Flu also partners with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Association for School Nurses and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases through the Keep Flu out of School program, an initiative that began five years ago with the purpose of elevating schools’ influenza prevention efforts.

“What we do is give them some additional tools that they can use to educate not only the parents and caregivers, but also the kids themselves,” Marotta said.

Marotta said preventing young deaths from influenza is a top priority, especially considering CDC guidelines, which recommend annual vaccinations for anyone age 6 months or older. Despite this, 97 children have died from the flu so far this year, and only 1 in 5 of them were previously vaccinated.

“We want people to know that the flu doesn’t discriminate, and getting vaccinated isn’t just about protecting your own individual health. It’s also protecting the health of the people around you,” Marotta said.

Reports from the CDC have found this year’s influenza vaccine to be about 36 percent effective in preventing contracting the flu, though Marotta said it is still best to get vaccinated.

“I always tell people if you don’t get a flu vaccine, you have zero percent protection, so that 36 percent actually looks pretty good if you ask me,” Marotta said.

Families Fighting Flu is a nonprofit organization that works to educate others about the flu and how to prevent it.

Families Fighting Flu encourages everyone to take preventative measures against influenza in addition to the vaccine, including healthy habits like staying home after contracting the virus and taking any prescribed antiviral medication

In all, Marotta said that education is the key to preventing flu-related complications and deaths.

“We have this silent killer that’s here in the United States,” Marotta said. “I’m hoping that with our messaging, with our education and our advocacy work, that people start paying attention to influenza.”