Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s Chief medical officer of health gave a talk at a news conference on Jan. 8 about an update on the flu season thus far.
Influenza season is reaching its peak in the province with activity beginning two to three weeks earlier than it did last year, according to surveillance.
Talbot said that so far, this season is tracking to be a fairly ordinary influenza season, but that it’s affecting those in the older age group harder than it did in the previous year.
“It proves the importance of making sure that you get your flu vaccine and you take the other precautions like staying away from work or from school when you’re feeling ill and washing your hands after you’ve been in public or before you eat,” he said.
Over 1.17 millions of Albertans have been immunized this year, which Talbot said is around 29%. This is a 31% increase over the same time last year.
“That’s a significant increase and we commend Albertans for their diligence in getting their shots. I’d like to point out that that is the second best year that we have on record. The best year being the year of the pandemic when we reached 34% of Albertans,” he said.
To date, 390 people have been hospitalized as a result of the influenza season. There have also been 23 Albertans who have had lab confirmed influenza pronounced dead.
“This compares to a normal death rate during influenza season in Alberta between 30 and 40 deaths at the end of the season.”
Out of the many serious cases of influenza, the elderly age group have been the one’s affected the most. The H3 strains, which is the dominate strain circulating in the province are known to attack the elderly and have a higher impact on them. Talbot said that the rate of lab confirmed cases amongst those over 80 is four times higher this season than last. The average age this year that have died is 87 where last year was 74. The average age that have been hospitalized is 68 whereas last year it was 52.
“That emphasizes the fact that older people are more at risk but it emphasizes that other age groups are still at risk and high risk groups are still vulnerable as well,” Talbot said.
In the Alberta Health Services long-term care or supportive living facilities, there have been 124 outbreaks to date and 25 outbreaks in other facilities including acute care.
“Public health staff across the province have been working very hard with the operators and with the staff in those institutions to bring the outbreaks under control as quickly as possible.”
To help in preventing the flu or more serious effects from it, seniors and others in high-risk groups should be getting the flu shot, and taking precautions like staying home from work, washing hands before eating and coughing into the elbow to lessen their risks.
There have been many questions regarding the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine.
“It’s important for people to recognize that every year surveillance is done as to what the best choices for the vaccine are, and some years the predictions come closer to the mark than others, but they have to be done in advance because it takes months including the approval process to make sure the vaccine is safe before the vaccine is made available,” Talbot said.
The vaccine protects both against H1N1, which was the dominant strain last year and H3N2, the minority strain last year, but the majority strain this year. H3N2 is circulating slightly different than the one that was found in the vaccine and so they have a partial match for what it’s circulating in the communities. With H3N2 the partial match is better than not getting the vaccine at all, Talbot said.
“The partial match does provides partial protection and its still important to get the vaccine because it will end up preventing hospitalizations, preventing deaths and resulting in people having a healthier time throughout the season.”
The latest flu numbers can be seen on Alberta Health Services website, and Talbot said that you can and should still get your flu shot.
“We’re most of the way through the rising part of the peak and Albertans have done a superb job of getting immunized in larger numbers and I’d like everybody to stay healthy by continuing to take those precautions.”