The flu season typically touches down in Canada in November and lingers until March. Right about now, Canadians head to flu vaccination clinics to roll up their sleeves and arm themselves against the season’s wave of influenza.
The past few years have been a tumultuous ride when it comes to influenza: in 2014, Canadian hospitals were battling enterovirus in children while monitoring for Ebola across the country.
By 2015, global health officials were rocked by a flu vaccine mismatch which meant that the shot was only 23 per cent effective against that season’s nasty H3N2 virus.
And last year, a combination of factors – a warm winter, a better-matched vaccine and round two of H3N2 – meant that the flu season didn’t pick up steam until well into February.
So what’s in store for the 2016-17 season? Global News asked experts, Dr. Gerald Evans, a Queen’s University professor and Kingston General Hospital chief of infectious diseases, and Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of bestselling book, The Germ Files, to shed light on what to expect.
Q: What strains are circulating 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 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 four major circulating strains: the pandemic H1N1/Cali, H3N2 Hong Kong, B-Brisbane and B-Phuket. They’re all covered in the vaccine.
H3N2 is what health officials say may cause the biggest problems. It’s the same virus that wreaked havoc two years ago when the vaccine was a mismatch.
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Q: What kind of flu season should Canadians expect this year?
The experts are calling for a run-of-the-mill season, especially if the H3N2 virus doesn’t “drift” and mutate.
But H3N2 is a virus that affects older patients more, leading to serious complications and higher rates of hospitalizations.
“We might see a lot of sick, older people who come down with this flu,” Evans said.
“It could be a bad year but mostly for seniors,” he told Global News.
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.
There are typically two peaks — one in December as kids return home from school, germs in tow, and again in January and into February, as frigid temperatures set in.
“Around Christmastime or the holiday season we’re going to see an uptick in cases but it most likely won’t be as severe because most of us have seen this kind of virus already,” Tetro said.
Q: How do experts make their guesses?
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).
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.
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“If we look at what happened in Australia, it was a fairly moderate season. There was no major change in the virus from the last few years so the vaccine covered the virus,” Tetro said.
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.
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Q: 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.
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Evans says that if at least 75 per cent of the public were to be immunized, “herd immunity” would occur. That means that if most people were vaccinated, the odds of an unvaccinated person getting sick 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.