Influenza is now being blamed for six deaths in Alberta this flu season, according to the latest data from the province.
A four-year-old child is among those who died, according to Health Minister Jason Copping.
“I would like to extend my condolences to their family and loved ones at this difficult time,” Copping wrote on Twitter.
On Thursday, Alberta Health released its latest flu numbers. So far this flu season, there have been 2,082 lab-confirmed cases of influenza, with almost all of those being attributed to influenza A.
Of those flu cases, 355 have required hospitalization and 34 of those required treatment in intensive care units.
“This season, as we see influenza virus circulate through the province at higher levels, we can again expect to see an increase in severe outcomes,” Copping said.
Dr. Tehseen Ladha is a pediatrician and assistant professor in department of pediatrics at the University of Alberta. She said the viral season this year is really bad compared to previous seasons.
“Kids are getting sick with way more frequency than usual. And secondly, they’re getting more severely ill than usual,” Ladha said.
While she said it’s rare for a child to pass away from influenza, she said it does happen.
“There are other years in which children have died of influenza and it’s heartbreaking,” Ladha said Friday.
She said the main thing people can do for their kids to help prevent influenza infection is to get them vaccinated.
“That’s something that I hope parents and families will really consider this season, especially given the sheer number of flu cases that we’re seeing and the severity of some of these cases.”
Ladha said masking in indoor public spaces, including schools, can also help prevent the spread of infection. Improving air quality and filtration, sanitizing high-touch surfaces and frequent hand washing will also help.
“Those things will have a huge impact on how frequently and severely everyone will get sick.”
One of her biggest concerns is that the viral season has not yet reached its peak.
“We’re far from the peak,” she said.
“It’s scary what lies ahead because we’ve started the season much earlier and there’s so many viral illnesses going around and they’re more severe. Right now we’re on the upswing. For example, influenza cases are increasing really rapidly and so I don’t expect the peak to occur for another one to two months.”
The pediatrician said the increase in cases of illness is coupled with long emergency department wait times and full beds at children’s hospitals.
“How are we going to meet the demand at the peak if we can’t even meet it now?” Ladha questioned. “The real worry is: are kids going to get substandard quality of care? Are they not going to get timely access to care? Is their condition going to deteriorate because we can’t meet those needs?
“The biggest fear is that a child will die waiting for care if things don’t get better.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Alberta Health said 781,868 doses of flu vaccine have been administered in the province, which equates to about 17.6 per cent of Albertans being vaccinated.
On Wednesday, Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health issued a statement about the rising number of flu, RSV and COVID-19 cases in the province.
Dr. Mark Joffe encouraged Albertans to get their flu shot and also to take other steps to reduce the spread of illness.
“While most children, youth and adults recover from the flu without complications, some can get very sick and need to be treated in hospital,” part of his statement read.
“Transmission levels will fluctuate over time and between communities. We encourage Albertans to judge their risk at any point in time and take appropriate precautions.”
Last week, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the rise in flu, COVID-19 and RSV cases across the country was creating challenges for the health-care system in several parts of the country and suggested there is a need for “stepped-up precautions.”
She stopped short of calling for mask mandates but recommended people wear them indoors.
“I know we’re all tired and we know only too well the long list of good habits that can help keep us and others healthier,” Tam said on Nov. 10.
Dr. Laura Sauvé, with the Canadian Paediatric Society Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee, said the whole country is seeing a lot of flu and RSV cases.
“It has a number of effects,” she said Friday. “One is that we’re seeing, in some centers in Canada, really high numbers of emergency room visits and really high numbers of children admitted to the hospital because of mostly influenza and RSV.
“It ties in, as well, to long emergency department waits because there’s so many children trying to access care, as well as lots of children off school because they’re sick and parents who have to take time off work because their kids are sick.”
Sauve says vaccination is one of the many tools Canadians can access to prevent flu transmission.
“We all need to stay home when we’re sick. We need to clean our hands lots. We need to cover our coughs. We need to wear masks when we’re in crowded public spaces. But influenza is at least partially vaccine-preventable. The vaccine doesn’t prevent 100 per cent of cases but it prevents some.
“From my perspective, it’s best to do everything we can to try to decrease the number of cases we’re seeing right now.
“The influenza vaccine only prevents influenza; it doesn’t prevent the other respiratory viruses,” Sauve said. “So we can still get sick with other respiratory viruses. But it should make it less likely for us to get influenza.”
–With files from The Canadian Press and Emily Mertz, Global News