Nasty flu season strikes as H3N2 cases spike across Canada

WATCH ABOVE: Some areas of Canada are seeing up to 40 per cent more flu cases than last year. The reason? This year’s flu vaccine isn’t as effective at combating the predominant strain. As Vassy Kapelos reports, emergency rooms are overflowing with infected patients.

TORONTO – The flu season arrived just in time for the New Year: across the country, hospitals are bracing for patients sick with H3N2.

The majority of flu cases are coming out of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, but influenza is quickly gaining speed in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

This year’s flu vaccine isn’t “optimally matched” to protect against H3N2 either, the federal agency warned.

READ MORE: What to expect from this year’s flu season

“We’re certainly at or reaching the peak of influenza activity,” Dr. Doug Sider, of Public Health Ontario, told Global News.

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Federal and provincial tracking on flu cases lead up to Dec. 20. Sider says it’s evident that the numbers are only climbing.

“It’s very clear from everything that we’re hearing that influenza activity is intensifying,” Sider said.

So far in Ontario, there have been 1,169 confirmed cases of the flu – about half of which were H3N2. Nineteen people have died from influenza in the province.

READ MORE: Number of flu cases continue to climb in Ontario

In Edmonton, 668 cases were recorded, while another 390 were logged in Calgary. Ten deaths have been reported in Alberta.

In Quebec, hospital officials told Global News about overcrowding in emergency rooms as patients pour in with symptoms. The holiday season doesn’t help either – walk-in clinics are closed.

READ MORE: Edmonton leads country in flu cases

In Winnipeg, hospitals recorded up to 900 emergency room visits per day. The average is about 700 to 750.

“We’ve experienced, over the last 48 to 72 hours, a significant increase in the number of people reporting to our emergency department,” said Lori Lamont, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s chief nursing officer.

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READ MORE: Flu-like illnesses keep Winnipeg hospitals ‘extremely busy’

Ottawa’s weekly Flu Watch report notes that the majority of flu cases is within the elderly population. Doctors aren’t surprised that this year’s flu season is leading up to increased hospital activity.

The H3N2 flu season in North America shares similarities with what happened months ago during the southern hemisphere’s flu season.

WATCH: The flu shot continues to be available throughout the province, although it’s not providing the level of protection officials had been hoping for. Heather Yourex reports.

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).

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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, according to Dr. Gerald Evans, a Queen’s University medicine professor and chief of infectious diseases at Kingston General Hospital.

READ MORE: 5 ways to protect yourself from the flu

H3N2, traditionally, is more potent. Evans warned in November 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.

WATCH: The flu season is already hitting hard across North America and in Nova Scotia, health officials are already dealing with several cases – much earlier than usual. Global’s Natasha Pace reports.

Picking out three strains for a vaccine is guesswork, and by the time influenza makes its way into the northern hemisphere, it’s had time to mutate or “drift.” But by then, the flu vaccine is already formulated.

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This year, the vaccine isn’t as effective but health officials say it’s still worthwhile to roll up your sleeve and get the shot.

READ MORE: This year’s flu shot may not be the right match, CDC tells doctors

While it may not protect against this one strain of the flu, it’ll still fight against other strains floating around. It’ll also lessen the risk of complications.

“Though reduced, the cross-protection might reduce the likelihood of severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death,” the CDC advisory said to American doctors when it discovered the mismatch.

Read more about who should be vaccinated here.

– With files from Kathlene Calahan, Su-Ling Goh, James Armstrong and Lara Schroeder