Nasty H3N2 flu season worsens as cases rise across Canada

WATCH ABOVE: Quebecers are being hit hard with the flu this year as the province has reached its flu season peak earlier than usual — and this is having an impact on Montreal’s emergency rooms.

TORONTO – The flu season kicked off to an early start last month, but latest numbers on H3N2 cases suggest that it’s still on the rise.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, recent flu numbers suggest that the country is “nearing” the peak of flu season. Cases of influenza are widespread across Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, with increasing activity in British Columbia and Manitoba.

H3N2 is still the predominant strain affecting Canadians, too. It’s especially hitting the elderly population. By the end of 2014, there were 166 outbreaks in eight provinces – 122 of them were in long-term care facilities.

PHAC’s latest flu watch report covers influenza activity in the last two weeks of 2014, and into Jan. 3. During that time, flu cases increased to 5,550 from 3,723 from the week before.

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READ MORE: Nasty flu season strikes as H3N2 cases spike across Canada

It’s been an ugly flu season: since the start, 1,302 hospitalizations have been reported, including 150 ICU admissions. There have been 69 deaths, including one child.

In some parts of Canada, cities have reported overcrowding in emergency rooms. The holiday season didn’t help either – walk-in clinics were closed.

Montreal health officials said they opened seven flu clinics across the island in response to the high number of patients showing up to hospitals with flu or flu-like symptoms.

“About 10 per cent of people who go to the hospital emergency rooms have flu-like symptoms,” explained Dr. Jacques Ricard, director of services at Santé Montréal.

READ MORE: Montreal public health opens seven clinics to battle high number of flu cases

The aim is to relieve some of the pressure in the hospitals and allow ER doctors to deal with other 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,” Lori Lamont, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s chief nursing officer, said last month.

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Alberta Health Services says the province’s influenza season has hit Alberta seniors particularly hard.

“It is hitting older people significantly harder than it did last year,” said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

“The rate of lab-confirmed cases amongst those over the age of 80 is four times higher this season than it was last season.”

WATCH ABOVE: New statistics confirm Alberta’s flu season started a few weeks early and it’s hitting older people particularly hard. Su-Ling Goh reports.

READ MORE: Seniors hit hardest by flu season, Alberta Health Services says

Doctors aren’t surprised that this year’s flu season is leading 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.

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Each year, strains of influenza mutate and re-emerge, infecting victims and triggering a new season. Those of us in the northern hemisphere keep a watchful eye on 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, 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.

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

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.

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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WATCH: The flu is hitting the US in full force. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports almost all states have widespread flu activity and most of the flu out there is from a virus that’s not matched to the vaccine. 

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.

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Read more about who should be vaccinated here.

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