‘Back with a vengeance’: Flu season off to ferocious start in Alberta

It’s an early and severe season. It’s really quite notable in that it’s massively more than we’re accustomed to, in general and this early’

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Hundreds of Albertans have been hospitalized by influenza and 12 have died from the infection since flu season kicked off last month, as the viral spread accelerates.

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Alberta Health data released Thursday showed 1,566 new lab-confirmed influenza cases were logged in the week ending Nov. 19. There have now been 3,648 cases this season, as well as 550 hospitalizations and 52 admissions to intensive care units.

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The 12 flu deaths this year include six newly reported Thursday. The deaths include two children — one aged one to four, and one aged five to nine — and seven Albertans aged 70 or older.

Those numbers represent an aggressive start to the flu season in Alberta, following two years during the COVID-19 pandemic in which the spread of the respiratory infection decreased significantly.

“It’s an early and severe season. It’s really quite notable in that it’s massively more than we’re accustomed to, in general and this early,” Dr. James Dickinson told Postmedia. He’s a University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine professor who runs the Alberta community influenza surveillance program.

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He said the dominant flu strain is influenza A H3N2, which also drove a late surge in cases last season.

“This is a pickup from what we saw in the early summer, the same virus. It’s disappeared through the summer, and now it’s coming back with a vengeance.”

There are also some cases of influenza A H1N1, a strain Dickinson said is more likely to cause severe illness, including hospitalizations.

He predicted the current H3N2 strain will peak within the next several weeks, but a second peak could take place later in the season, around the holidays, with the H1N1 virus.

“Prediction is often difficult, but my thought would be that’s likely to happen,” Dickinson said.

Albertans have been slow on the uptake of flu shots this year.

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As of Nov. 19, 20.5 per cent of Albertans had been immunized against influenza so far this year. In comparison, 27 percent of Albertans rolled up their sleeves for the shot over the 2021–22 season, and 37 percent did the same in 2020–21, which stands as Alberta’s highest-ever rate.

Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health, Dr. Mark Joffe, encouraged parents to immunize their children against influenza in an email shared by school boards Wednesday. All children aged six months and older are eligible for the shot; those under five can book shots at Alberta Health Services clinics online or by calling 811, while older children can get their vaccine at a pharmacy or physician’s office.

He said there’s been a large rise in “cough and fever type sickness” in schools over recent weeks, and said although most children who get the flu recover without complications, some get very sick and need hospital treatment.

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“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,” Joffe said.

Joffe also encouraged mask use, particularly in crowded indoor settings.

FILE PHOTO: Students, most of them wearing masks, leave William Aberhart High School at the end of the day in northwest Calgary on Oct.  5, 2021.
FILE PHOTO: Students, most of them wearing masks, leave William Aberhart High School at the end of the day in northwest Calgary on Oct. 5, 2021. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Immunization rates are significantly higher among Alberta seniors, with 57 percent of those age 65 and older having received their shot.

Dickinson noted a special vaccine formulation is available for seniors that contains a higher antigen dose, meant to offer additional protection for the high-risk group.

The disruptive effect of respiratory illnesses broadly circulating in the community — a combination of the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 — should offer motivation for Albertans to get immunized, he said.

“It should be a message that this isn’t a nice thing to have, and it would be much nicer to either prevent it or reduce it. Vaccines reduce the likelihood of getting it, but they also reduce the intensity if you do get it. Your chance of going to hospital is reduced,” Dickinson said.

“It seems like a good idea to me.”

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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