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Alberta’s top doctor warns parents about concerning, ‘severe’ flu season

Click to play video: 'Flu cases on the rise in Alberta'
Flu cases on the rise in Alberta
WATCH: Flu cases in Alberta have been on the rise in recent weeks, but the uptake for the influenza vaccine is behind where it's been in previous years. Kendra Slugoski reports. – Nov 24, 2022

Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health penned a letter to parents Wednesday, warning them about a flu season that could be “more severe than we have seen in years.”

On Thursday, Alberta Health released its latest influenza data, showing there have been 3,648 lab-confirmed cases and 550 hospitalizations, 52 of which have resulted in admission to the intensive care unit.

That’s an increase from 2,082 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in the province one week prior. Also one week prior, there were 355 people in hospital with the flu, 34 of whom were in the ICU.

As of the week of Nov. 19, there have been 12 deaths attributed to influenza (two were in children between the ages of one and nine, seven were in Albertans aged 70 and older).

That’s an increase of six deaths from the last time Alberta Health released flu data last Thursday.

Read more: Young child among 6 Albertans who have died of influenza this season

Dr. Mark Joffe and Dr. Laura McDougall, senior medical officer of health, asked all school divisions in Alberta to distribute their Nov. 23 letter.

“In the last few weeks, we have seen a large rise in cough and fever type sickness in our schools,” it reads in part.

“We are concerned that this influenza season will be more severe than we have seen in years, and that illness will continue to disrupt school, sports and upcoming holiday gatherings.”

“The influenza season in Australia often predicts the type of season we will see in Canada. This year, Australia had a particularly severe respiratory virus season with influenza and COVID-19 rising at the same time. They saw the highest rates of influenza disease in children and teenagers, with children less than 16 years of age accounting for the majority of all influenza hospitalizations this year.”

The letter explained that most children recover from influenza, but some children can get very sick and need hospital treatment.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s top doctor recommends kids be vaccinated ahead of flu season as medication shortage continues'
Canada’s top doctor recommends kids be vaccinated ahead of flu season as medication shortage continues

Joffe and McDougall said this season’s flu vaccine offers protection against H3N2, the most common strain of influenza in Alberta right now.

“Influenza vaccines are safe, effective and offer the best defense from serious illness.”

In Alberta, the flu shot is recommended for all children six months and older. It’s free and appointments for kids under five can be booked by calling 811 or online. Kids five and older can get their shot at a pharmacy or participating doctor’s clinic.

So far, 911,529 doses of influenza vaccine have been administered in Alberta, which means about 20.5 per cent of Albertans have been vaccinated.

Read more: 1st statement from Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health on RSV, flu season

The two senior health officials also encouraged using a well-fitting, high-quality mask, especially in crowded indoor settings.

“Wearing a mask can help reduce your risk of becoming sick and help protect others from being exposed. Individuals should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not,” the letter reads.

 

Click to play video: 'Viral trifecta: Trio of illnesses infecting children, straining hospitals'
Viral trifecta: Trio of illnesses infecting children, straining hospitals

In addition to the vaccine and masking, Joffe and McDougall offered other tips to prevent the flu:

  • Stay home when feeling sick;
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick;
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
  • Cover your cough;
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands;
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items at home, especially when someone in your home is sick.

“Thank you for everything you do to keep your families and communities healthy,” the letter concluded.

Read more: Infectious diseases doctor urges Albertans be cautious when gathering for Thanksgiving

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist, was surprised by how early the season started.

She said that while Alberta and western Canada usually sees it start before the rest of Canada, it typically peaks closer to Christmas, even here.

“The thing I’m finding a little concerning is that it’s rocketing up extremely quickly, we don’t know when it’s going to slow down, and we’ve easily exceeded a peak that happened much later in previous years already. It’s ripping through the community aggressively,” she said.

“It hasn’t started turning around yet.”

Read more: Alberta education minister ‘not anticipating’ school mask mandate despite early, numerous student absences

Saxinger is urging everyone to get their flu shot as soon as possible. She said early estimates show the vaccine offers “good protection,” which translates to about a 60 to 70 per cent chance of preventing serious illness.

“Imperfect protection still reduces severity,” she added.

With other illnesses — RSV and COVID — circulating, how can parents know when it’s time to seek help for their sick child?

“The thing to guide people would be how severely ill they are,” Saxinger said.

“If you’re starting to see a kid who’s not eating, drinking, or breathing normally, then yes, unfortunately — although I expect there’s a lot of congestion — that’s something you at least need to run by your provider, and then figure out if you have to go in to get a more formal assessment.

“Influenza is usually pretty tough for the first few days and then turns around, but you never want to wait too late because kids can get really ill.”

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