This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on January 6, 2014
About 30 people have been admitted to intensive care units in B.C. so far this flu season, and the resurgence of the H1N1 virus has prompted health officials to warn young people to get immunized.
There has been one death attributed to the virus in this province, although laboratory results have not yet confirmed whether H1N1 was the cause.
Despite the notorious strain of the virus, doctors are not expecting this year’s flu season to be nearly as severe as the 2009 pandemic. That year, 8,678 Canadians were hospitalized with the virus, and 428 died. Now, many Canadians are immune to the virus, making another pandemic unlikely.
“The sky isn’t falling,” said Danuta Skowronski of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. “But there are certain people that we recognize may be at particular risk this season, and that includes young and middle-aged adults.”
Last year’s H3N2 strain of the influenza virus caused numerous outbreaks among the elderly in care homes over the course of one of the worst seasons in a decade. By contrast, the H1N1 strain is most dangerous for the young.
“Normally, flu affects the very young and the very old,” said Michelle Murte, a medical health officer at Fraser Health. “Many people over 65 have been exposed to H1N1 when they were younger, whereas younger people wouldn’t have been exposed to it.”
When the H1N1 virus does strike younger people, its symptoms appear to be more severe than those of the H3N2 virus.
“We don’t normally see that age group requiring the type of acute care and intensive care we’re seeing now,” Dr. Murte said.
The risk is the most severe among people 20 to 60 years old with risk factors like pregnancy, obesity, heart and lung conditions, or impaired immune systems.
Walter Hiebert, a 56 year-old man living with HIV since 1988, said he makes sure to get his flu shot every year. But he says that despite the encouragement of urban health authorities, who were among the best prepared for the 2009 pandemic, not all HIV-positive people get the shot.
“They’re doing so well on the [antiretroviral] drugs,” said Mr. Hiebert. “They’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone else” in terms of how vulnerable to the flu they think they are.
Saskatchewan has seen a run on flu shots after three confirmed deaths from H1N1 there. On Monday, Alberta’s chief medical officer acknowledged many pharmacies in that province ran short of flu vaccine. Last week, hundreds of Albertans lined up for shots after it was revealed there have been 965 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in their province. Almost all have been H1N1.
A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Health said there are no vaccine shortages here.
Still, Dr. Skowronski said that’s no reason for people to be casual about getting a shot.
“People shouldn’t delay immunizations for a number of reasons,” Dr. Skowronski said. “First of all, we can’t guarantee an endless supply. Secondly, you’re going to maximize your benefit if you get the vaccine before, rather than during or after, the peak.
“It’s not too late to get immunized, but we’re on the cusp. People shouldn’t delay too long.”