Alberta flu season one of worst in decades, expert warns
Alberta is in the midst of its worst flu season in years and is one of the hardest hit regions in the country.
Flu cases are rising early and have reached levels not seen since 2009, the year the new H1N1 virus emerged.
“The numbers are currently approaching what we saw in 2009, which was by far our worst flu season in decades,” said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.
« What’s really worrying, though, is that this curve hasn’t started to slow down. »
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s FluWatch report, Alberta is experiencing some of the most widespread influenza activity in the country.
At the same time, less than a quarter – just 22.5% – of Albertans have had their flu shot.
“Vaccine uptake is remarkably low in Alberta this year. We are well behind our average…and Alberta Health has even admitted that our five-year average is still not good enough to provide protection at the community level.
The difference between 2009 and this year, Jenne noted, is that there was no widely available effective flu vaccine targeting the emerging H1N1 virus at the start of this flu season.
This year’s vaccine targets the two strains circulating in the province (H3N2 and, to a much lesser extent, H1N1), he said.
« It’s been tough for the flu and other respiratory viruses, certainly this year, » said Calgary Zone Medical Officer of Health Dr. Karla Gustafson.
However, she hopes that the number of flu cases could plateau.
“Things seem to have settled down a bit with two weeks of stable numbers in Alberta. They’re high but… it doesn’t look like they’re climbing now, so maybe we’re getting closer to a peak,” Gustafson said. .
« But with that, of course, [there are] many increased hospitalizations and stays in intensive care…and, unfortunately, deaths in Alberta due to influenza at all ages.
Flu hospitalizations increased by 268 last week. So far this flu season, 818 Albertans have been hospitalized with the flu, and 80 of them have ended up in intensive care.
Four more flu deaths have been reported for a total of 16 so far this season.
Jenne thinks it’s too early to know if Alberta has reached its flu peak, adding that he would like to see several more weeks with clear downward trends.
« You have to keep in mind that these numbers are already very high. And we need a significant drop if we are to slow viral spread. »
Alberta Health Services said it continues to strongly encourage people to book their free flu shots.
It has a provincial ad campaign running at airports as well as at Saddledome and Rogers Place during NHL and lacrosse games.
« It’s not too late to get vaccinated, » Gustafson said, adding that AHS recently opened weekend vaccination clinics in an effort to get more children vaccinated. Children under five should get their flu shot at AHS public health clinics.
The province, meanwhile, launched a text and email campaign on Tuesday encouraging flu shots.
As of Friday afternoon, Alberta Health said it sent 906,000 text messages and 300,000 emails to people who have already signed up to receive notifications on Alberta’s vaccine reservation system.
Gustafson said wearing a mask in public and staying home when sick can also help stem transmission.
« Sometimes we’re most contagious that day before we get sick or just when we start to feel unwell. So…if you have that idea [that you’re] feeling unwell is the most important time to avoid contact with others to help prevent the spread of illness. »