TORONTO – It’s that time of year again: the season of coughing, sneezing, sick days and flu shots has arrived.
Each fall, Canadians head to flu vaccination clinics and roll up their sleeves to arm themselves against the season’s wave of influenza that typically arrives in November and lingers until March.
After a tumultuous summer with Canadian hospitals battling enterovirus in children and public health officials monitoring potential cases of Ebola across the country, doctors are anticipating a relatively average flu season. That means the flu will leave its mark on parts of the country but the predicted strains are fairly typical and we aren’t expecting new strains of pandemic flu, like 2009’s H1N1.
“Based on what we saw in the Southern Hemisphere, we should expect a moderate influenza season and we shouldn’t be seeing any significant problems,” according to Dr. Gerald Evans.
Evans is a Queen’s University medicine professor and chief of infectious diseases at Kingston General Hospital.
“There’s no indication that we’re in for a bad flu season,” he said. But that still means that thousands of Canadians will be hospitalized for their symptoms and complications, he cautioned.
The flu season has already started, too, according to Canadian microbiologist and author, Jason Tetro.
“We’re looking at the Western provinces where weather is cooler and wetter but we’re starting to see it in Southern Ontario and Quebec,” he said.
Last year’s flu season crept into Canada and also left without much fanfare.
“We were expecting something far more serious than we actually saw. Within H1N1, there’s a strain that’s very virulent and could be lethal – it affected the Pacific Northwest vigorously, and we thought it’d get into Canada but it didn’t amount to much,” Tetro explained.
This year, the flu virus should make an appearance by November, and by January, an upswing of sickness should hit the country and linger for about four weeks before influenza dies down, Evans said.
Strains of influenza that could make their way to Canada this year
There are three types of influenza: A, B and C.
Influenza A is the “big bad one we always worry about,” Evans says, while he calls influenza C “inconsequential.”
Influenza B, for its part, is an important disease in that it hits kids more so than adults. Each year, the flu vaccine administered to patients contains protection against two strains of influenza A and one strain of influenza B.
This year, North American doctors are bracing for a strain of H1N1 called A/California/7/2009, an H3N2 strain called A/Texas/50/2012 and an influenza B similar to a B/Massachusetts/2012.
Each year, strains of the influenzas mutate and re-emerge, infecting victims and triggering a new season. Those of us in the northern hemisphere keep a watchful eye over the flu in the southern hemisphere, which affects residents during their winter (or our summer).
The H3N2 strain is what affected seniors in the southern hemisphere and it was most pronounced on the tail end of the flu season, within the last six weeks, Evans said.
H3N2, traditionally, is more potent. Evans warns that if health officials are anticipating an H3N2 predominant season, there could be more hospitalizations.
“It’s possible this might be a flu season where we’ll see people get more ill, which causes people to require hospitalizations versus riding out the flu at home,” he said.
Scientists look at the patterns and make their predictions based on what viruses made their rounds below us and estimate what mutations could occur before the influenzas make their way over the equator.
They narrow their guesses to only a handful and those three strains are then included in the seasonal vaccine that’s given to the masses.
Evans says that three-quarters of the time, the medical community is right, and the flu vaccine concocted that year is the correct defense against that year’s influenza.
What roles do EV-D68 and Ebola play in this year’s flu season?
Ebola is a deadly disease that world leaders and the general public have paid close attention to. Across North America, parents and pediatricians alike scrambled over the summer in response to enterovirus D68, a respiratory virus that left children out of breath and in emergency rooms.
Both ailments share similar symptoms to the flu at the onset – fever, cough, aches, trouble breathing, as examples.
Tetro suggests Canadians and frontline health care workers are going to be much more cautious.
“Every year it’s not just the flu that’s making the rounds. There are a number of other viruses and infections that can cause respiratory and other symptoms which could be misinterpreted,” he said.
Who should be getting the flu shot?
As always, doctors are advising Canadians to get their flu shots to help protect themselves, and the people around them from catching influenza.
At this point, Evans says that vaccination rates nationally sit at a meagre 20 to 25 per cent while health care workers report higher numbers at about 40 per cent.
Evans says that if at least 75 per cent of the public were to be immunized, “herd immunity” would occur. That means that even if a single person wasn’t vaccinated, if most of the people around them were, the risk of transmission would be very low.
He cautions that while most of us feel healthy, the flu shot has benefits that extend beyond our own immune systems.
“I’m a doctor and I get my shot every year so the likelihood of me getting the flu is reduced, and that means I’m unlikely to transmit to my family, my friends and to my patients that I see,” he said.
“It’s one of those things where it’s good for you, but it’s also good for everybody around you too.”
Kids as young as six months old can start getting the vaccine.
It’s also recommended for populations at risk of complications. These people who are more vulnerable include pregnant women, children under five years old, seniors and residents in long-term care or nursing homes.
Those with underlying health problems, such as chronic diseases (asthma, chronic bronchitis, cancer) should also make their way to a flu vaccination clinic.
Evans suggests that getting the vaccine earlier helps. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to be most effective, and its effects are long-lasting.
For more on the flu season, take a look at the government’s Flu Watch.
To read about flu prevention tips, take a look at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website.