In February 2003, 5-year-old Alana Yaksich spent a typical day with her family watching movies, playing games, and gobbling up an ice cream sundae. She was recuperating from a recent sore throat and had finished up a round of antibiotics, but still had a low-grade fever. Later that evening, her temperature spiked to 106 degrees and her parents rushed her to the emergency room, but within hours the Yaksich’s worst nightmare became reality. Alana died from influenza complications. In 2009, Zach Yaksich founded Alana’s Flu Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit institution dedicated to educating people about the severity of influenza and the importance of vaccinating children against the flu every year. It’s the foundation’s mission to guide grieving families who have experienced the tragic loss of a child with compassionate care. It’s focused on providing resources for emotional counseling, short-term financial support, and assistance in fulfilling basic day-to-day needs, while continuing to educate the public about the importance of yearly influenza vaccinations. The Yaksich family resides in West Bloomfield.
So the loss of Alana prompted you to become an activist for vaccination education. How did you go about catapulting this foundation off the ground?
ZY: It was a collective effort between myself and my family members, and it just kind of evolved over time. As you said, when Alana passed away I wanted to turn something positive out of the tragedy and make her loss have some type of purpose, if you will. So gradually we coordinated flu vaccination clinics in the local communities and people reached out and asked me to speak to groups, and then as the demand became larger we decided to actually form it into an official foundation.
Influenza, commonly called “the flu,” is a highly-contagious disease that is caused by a virus which infects the respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs). Unlike the common cold, the flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications in people of all ages. Nationwide each year, more than 200,000 people (20,000 children) are hospitalized from flu related complications and 36,000 die, including more than 380 children over the past five flu seasons. Do you find that during your rounds to speak or hold functions, people are surprised by these figures and are prompted to vaccinate?
ZY: Absolutely. I think in general the public uses the term “flu” very loosely when they describe being under the weather. I was guilty of that myself before this happened to Alana. The biggest surprise to me, believe it or not, is quite often when I speak to medical groups — doctors, nurses, practitioners, and inevitably — after I’m done speaking and tell my story one to five people will come up with tears in their eyes and say “I’m guilty. Until I heard you speak, I didn’t get my children vaccinated nor myself, but I’m going to do that now.” Here I am speaking to people in the medical profession who should be more conscious of the effects of the flu than any of us. So yeah, it’s staggering to see that. The statistics themselves were staggering after this happened and when I dug into it. I guess there’s not a better way to describe it but staggering.
Has this mission helped your family to heal in some small way?
ZY: Yes. The loss of Alana has really taken a toll on our family. This foundation has helped us to deal with it and like I said previously — it creates something positive out of such a tragic situation.
Alana was not vaccinated for the flu at the time of her death since her age fell below the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. Has the agency since lowered the age limit?
ZY: Yes, the recommendation now is from 6 months to however old. I was instrumental in that with the foundation, as well as the national foundation founder of Families Fighting Flu. I actually lobbied the CDC and ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) to lower those recommendations. I can proudly say I was responsible for that happening, as well.
How often should a child receive a flu vaccine? Does it cover all the strains?
ZY: You should receive a flu vaccine every year.
I’m not a doctor, but I know quite a bit about it. The strains change every year. They create a flu vaccine (based) on the strains from the previous season and what is happening right now … They try to get the strains as close as they can, but that’s the thing about the flu — it changes every season and mutates and that’s why you need a new flu vaccine every year. It’s not just a one time shot and you’re covered because that virus is always changing. Statistics on the CDC website — I believe last year’s (vaccine) was 65 to 70 percent accurate. If you’re in Vegas, that’s pretty good odds.
Have you encountered people who are worried to vaccinate given the controversy that in some way vaccinations could be linked to the higher incidence ZY: I come across that quite often. Again I try not to change people’s beliefs, but ask them to look at the facts and the research that I have looked at and have been able to provide. There’s no scientific backing that vaccines are linked to autism. Unfortunately in our society with the media and with, I believe Jenny McCarthy behind that as a big advocate, and with Facebook and Twitter and such, people tend to go by that as opposed to what their doctor says. But there is no scientific evidence and vaccines are safe. When that controversy started, they said that the preservative, thimerosal, that was put in vaccines is a big link. Thimerosal has been taken out. When it was taken out, that’s when the higher incidence of autism increased. That debunks the claim that vaccines cause the autism. I face it all the time. It’s a little frustrating for me, but I understand people making decisions based on what they feel is best for themselves and their family. I can’t really argue with that. If that’s what they’re comfortable with, go with it.
The foundation has expanded the scope of its mission to offer support to families that experienced the tragic loss of a child (regardless of the cause). Could you expound on what changes you implemented and what you now provide?
ZY: Actually in the last year we did that. Prior to that we were strictly for flu education and providing convenient access to flu vaccines. Then as my family reflected back on what my family went through with the loss of Alana, I felt as though we needed to do something more for other families losing their children. So we are a resource for families, regardless of the cause (of death), which could be anything from helping you to connect to grief counseling to helping you meet your day-to-day need. Often when families lose their children, they can’t afford to pay for funerals. We might help subsidize funeral costs, doctor bills incurred, your daily bills — it’s really a broad spectrum to help meet your needs and work through the grieving process. We are there as a resource for you.
Tell our readers about some of your fund-raising events and others like flu clinics you sponsor?
ZY: Last year was the first time we had a fundraiser for our foundation because we needed the funds to help the cause. We held two: One was a private viewing of the Lingenfelter auto collection because of a gentleman out in Brighton who has one of the world’s top private auto collections —150 cars, privately owned, from Chevys to Ferraris. The second one was a comedy/dinner show at Andiamo’s in Bloomfield Hills. The money is used to subsidize flu vaccines. We recently partnered with Black Family Development out of Detroit and the Brightmoor Community Center. We’ve held clinics at some of the local schools — Bloomfield Hills, Catholic Central, and Mercy High School. We hold a clinic and make the vaccines available for the students.
You speak at events. What is the main message you’re trying to convey?
ZY: The main message is the flu is dangerous — it does kill. We all hear statistics and always think that’s not going to happen to me, but here I am. I’m here to put a face to the tragedy so people see it, and it seems like when you do people act. Really it’s just to get you vaccinated and prevent a tragedy from happening. It’s an unnecessary tragedy, preventable by getting a vaccine. So protect yourself, your family and the community around you. When you vaccinate yourself, you’re also what they call herd immunity — as more people in the community get vaccinated, the larger the coverage for the community as a whole. Do it annually. Unfortunately with the flu you have to do it annually.
Are your efforts limited to Michigan?
ZY: As far as speaking engagements and holding the clinics, we are limited to Michigan. I have helped families outside of Michigan. This year we helped a family from New York that lost a child, unfortunately, to the flu, but we’re not limited as far as support to Michigan alone.
Do you have anything planned in the near future?
ZY: Right now we are coordinating the clinics for the fall season. We’re working with the communities we have in the past and trying to make additional clinics and expand our efforts.
In 2012, you were the recipient of the CDC Childhood Immunization Champion Award for Michigan. How did you feel about receiving such a reward?
ZY: Well, it was rewarding and something unexpected. I was nominated by somebody in the state of Michigan. I do this, not for those types of reasons, but it’s nice to be recognized because you do put a lot of time and effort into non-profits. It’s 100 percent volunteer, so it was nice to be recognized that hey, this individual has really gone out of his way for his cause. It felt good.
Are you a member of any other advisory boards or coalitions?
ZY: I was the founder of Families Fighting Flu, a national non-profit that we started after Alana passed away, myself and two other families. I believe it’s grown to 15 families now. I have resigned as far as a board member only because of the time constraints, but am still a member. Other than that it’s just Alana’s Foundation.
How can readers learn more about the foundation, its mission and activities, and the flu? How can readers get involved in the foundation’s cause?
ZY: You can visit our website at alanasfoundation.org, and all that is covered there.
We can always use volunteers at our various events. Donations are always welcome. We’re always looking for new board members. We’re in the process of looking to add a board member who can help us in the awareness department, if you will, to help get our name out there.