Thousands of Canadians celebrated the holiday season feeling a bit feverish, knocked off their feet by a strain of influenza that’s hurried across the country earlier than in years past.
The latest edition of the Public Health Agency of Canada report said localized influenza activity, commonly known as the flu, was reported in 11 provinces and territories during the first week of December.
According to Health Canada, there were around 3,500 cases of influenza in the country as of Dec. 15. By the same time in 2011, there were only 182 cases.
New statistics on the flu outbreak are expected from British Columbia and Quebec on Thursday, sure to affirm the coughing fits heard nationwide.
The flu typically strikes any time between November and April, with a peak somewhere near the end of January. Health officials are finding this season the majority of cases being reported are an aggressive sub-type of the H3N2 virus.
Dr. Michael Gardam, infectious disease consultant at the University Health Centre in Toronto, said he’s seen a “huge number” of patients coming through the emergency room in the past few weeks.
“Most people who get the flu don’t end up hospitalized,” Gardam said. “We are seeing large numbers of people in the hospital who are coming in and are kept in the hospital with it.”
Children and seniors at risk
The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control has seen an earlier increase in the number of flu-related cases.
Dr. Danuta Skowronski said the early outbreak may not mean a worse season overall, but our mingling at malls and parties over the holidays probably hasn’t done much to curb the spread of the disease.
“That social mixing that we all go through during the holiday period likely will have facilitated further spread,” Skowronski said. “We have our eyes very watchful to see if the return to school with children congregating closely in those confined quarters, if that may further exacerbate the problem.”
At the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, the number of physicians on shift was beefed up in mid-December after a 20 per cent spike in patient volume.
Children under the age of nine, as well as seniors, are the most at risk of contracting the flu.
Calgary pediatrician Dr. Peter Nieman said he’d seen twice as many children as usual this season and recommended, if possible, parents take their children to a family doctor before going to a hospital.
“The emergency room, arguably, can just get completely clogged up with flu and nothing else,” Nieman said.
Nfld. health agencies close to stop spread
In southern Ontario, Windsor medical centres have seen nearly triple the amount of flu patients compared to last year.
Dr. Allen Heimann, chief medical officer at the Windsor Essex County Health Unit, said the colder weather was contributing to the increase.
"Last year, we had very few numbers of flu cases. We had a warm winter, and the flu virus does much better when it's cold," Heimann said.
The largest health authority in Newfoundland and Labrador, Eastern Health, closed the doors to three of its health agencies in St. John’s on Wednesday to help stop the spread of the flu.
The agency had announced earlier this week that it was restricting visits to a nursing home in the provincial capital after an increase in seniors contracting the virus.
With the peak season for contracting flu coming in the next few weeks, Gardam advises Canadians on three ways to help fend off germs, and hopefully avoid getting sick: get a flu shot, wash your hands, don’t touch your face
“If your hands are dirty, touching your face is a great way of getting infected with the flu and if you see a lot of sick people, don’t go near them,” he said.
The flu shot can give you a sore arm and aches. Each year’s vaccine is only designed to protect against the strains it includes. Fever occurs infrequently after vaccination, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
A nasal spray version of the vaccine is approved for use in Canada. Provincial health plans may not cover the cost.
A review of studies from 1967 to 2012 concluded that standard injectable influenza vaccines containing three strains protect healthy adults aged 18 to 64 at a rate of about 59 per cent. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota and the report's lead author. "During some influenza seasons vaccination offers substantially more protection for most of the population than being unvaccinated; however, influenza vaccine protection is markedly lower than for most routinely recommended vaccines and is suboptimal," the report concluded.
Pharmacists in four provinces — British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick, can give flu shots. Official regulations for pharmacists are pending in Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, said Jeff Morrison of the Canadian Pharmacists Association. Matthews said that by expanding the scope of practice for pharmacists gives people more options to get immunized, such as coming in for a flu shot during their lunch break.
Getting immunized during pregnancy protects women and infants for the first six months of life when they can't be vaccinated, Dr. Scott Halperin, head of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax, said in an interview. If you are pregnant (or planning to get pregnant) it is safe to get immunized with the inactivated influenza vaccine, Alberta Health Services says.