‘Kids are dying’: B.C. doctor speaks out over respiratory illness-related deaths

Click to play video: 'Canadian health officials split on how to address pediatric crisis'
Canadian health officials split on how to address pediatric crisis
WATCH: Canadian health officials split on how to address pediatric crisis – Dec 14, 2022

A B.C. doctor is calling for more to be done to protect children from influenza-related illness, which experts say has claimed more lives in recent weeks than typical respiratory virus seasons.

Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, a clinical professor of surgery at UBC, says in the early stages of the pandemic, the elderly were the most vulnerable but now it’s children who are most at risk.

“I’ve taken care of the sickest of sick children over three decades as a heart surgeon. Seeing them die of respiratory illnesses like influenza is just truly heartbreaking,” Gandhi said.

The pediatric cardiac surgeon in Vancouver says recently, he’s had to transition from the operating room to support patients with respiratory illnesses.

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“Kids are dying from this and we just don’t see that in a normal flu year. There are kids requiring very intense forms of life support like ventilators or ECMO heart-lung by-pass machines,” Gandhi told Global News.

Gandhi believes the current crisis affecting children is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because of how various strains of the virus can damage the immune system.

“The damage to the immune system from COVID-19 is significant. It is not just a respiratory disease. There’s increasing evidence it’s hurting our immune system, not just in the short term, but the long-term, making it much more difficult for our bodies to fight off infections. These kids are suffering from that,” Gandhi said.

In response to six flu-related deaths in children in BC this season, the provincial government announced what it calls an influenza vaccine blitz for kids, and weekly reports on fatalities.

“I don’t want to be hearing about weekly deaths in kids. If it’s at that stage, we’ve lost the plot here,” Gandhi said, adding, “We’re basically paying the price for pretending this pandemic was over before it was really over.”

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SickKids hospital in Toronto has been operating at above 127 per cent capacity for several days in a row, according to a statement from the hospital. The hospital adds more than half of the patients in intensive care on a ventilator and non-urgent or emergency surgeries are being cancelled.

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Click to play video: '‘Tridemic’ causing new health-care impacts across Canada'
‘Tridemic’ causing new health-care impacts across Canada

During a briefing about respiratory viruses on Wednesday, Quebec’s top doctor urged people to avoid holiday parties if they have COVID-19 on the same day Canada’s top doctor issued a similar message.

“This holiday season let’s do the best we can to make our wishes for health and happiness come true by taking actions to protect ourselves and others,” Dr. Theresa Tam said at a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Dr. Gandhi is calling for stricter measures to help protect children including easier access to vaccines and more testing in children so doctors like him know what they’re treating.

“When you don’t know what you’re treating, it’s difficult to target therapies like Tamiflu or Paxlovid without that knowledge,” Gandhi said.

He is also calling for a mandatory mask policy for indoor spaces such as mass public transit and schools, which BC health officials and officials across the country remain reluctant to do.

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“The elephant in the room is masks. We have to have an indoor mask mandate. Masks have become a political hotcake rather than being viewed as a personal protective measure. We need to do everything possible to help sick kids, but we aren’t doing it,” Gandhi said.

Vaccination is 'best defence,' say officials

Influenza-related deaths in previously healthy children continue to be rare but this season is unusual and brought with it an early and intense surge in cases, according to the B.C. Ministry of Health.

“Public-health officials are monitoring the situation closely, and we urge everyone to do their part by taking steps to protect yourself, your children and loved ones against the flu,” a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Health told Global News in a statement.

Click to play video: 'Expert answers on the idea of boosting immunity and staying healthy this flu season'
Expert answers on the idea of boosting immunity and staying healthy this flu season

During an influenza update last week, B.C.’s top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said mandatory masking was needed when the province saw a surge of COVID-19 cases and transmission, while other public health measures were also in place.

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“We’re now in a very different situation. There are a number of different viruses that are transmitted between children in different settings, and having only a mask mandate in indoor settings is unlikely to have an effect on the trajectory of the viruses that are circulating in our community,” the statement said.

The province is urging people to stay home if they’re sick, wash their hands frequently, cover coughs, properly dispose of tissues and wear a mask “when appropriate.”

“Vaccination remains our best defence. Vaccination against influenza is available to all children six months and older in B.C. This is particularly important for children at highest individual risk of severe outcomes, including those with chronic medical conditions, those who need to take Aspirin or ASA for long periods of time, children who are very obese, infants and toddlers,” the statement said.

The ministry told Global News 30 per cent of B.C.’s general population aged six months and older have received the influenza vaccine.

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