01/03/2015 04:16 EST | Updated 03/05/2015 05:59 EST

B.C. 2015 influenza outbreak approaching 10-year maximum for medical visits

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is reporting a "sharp increase" in the number of influenza cases.

Epidemiologist Dr. Danuta Skowronski said the outbreak is consistent with a mutated H3N2 season, a flu virus that Skowronski described as "particularly nasty" and from which this year's flu vaccine does not offer full protection.

"We’re having a huge number of long-term care facility outbreaks reported to us," she said. "Yesterday (Jan 2), my team was struggling to keep up with the number of reports that were coming in."

Skowronski said this year's strain is hitting the elderly, the very young, or people of any age with chronic medical conditions, particularly hard.

"We need to reinforce the message for our high-risk patients that even if they were vaccinated this year, the vaccine protection is going to be reduced because of the mismatch," she said, "and they should be considering early anti-viral treatment whether they were vaccinated or not if they have high risk conditions."

Elderly particularly at risk

Since this year's flu vaccine does not offer full protection, Skowronski said there will be more hospitalizations and deaths. 

"Virtually all of those are likely to be in the elderly, because the elderly for whatever reason, their immune systems do not respond well in recognizing H3N2 viruses so they tend to be especially susceptible."

Skowronski said B.C. is experiencing unprecedented numbers of long-term care facility outbreaks.

"The last H3N2 mismatch was in 2012, and that year we had the highest number of care facility outbreaks compared to any prior season," she said.

"Well already for the same time this year, we have double the number we had in 2012, so this is shaping up consistent with a substantially mismatched H3N2 year."

Skowronski said if you're in a high risk group: very young, elderly, or with a chronic illness, time is of the essence.

"It’s important to start those anti-viral drugs early. And by early I mean within 12 hours of illness onset."  

"And people should be considering how they might get a prescription if they develop influenza-like illness within the coming weeks, because influenza, and a particularly nasty influenza, is definitely dominating now."