300 cases and counting

With 300 cases confirmed in Alberta, experts are reporting one of the worst seasons for flu.

That number has tripled since last year. At the same time in 2016, only 97 cases had been confirmed.

424,000 vaccines have been administered so far, which is around 10 per cent of Alberta’s population. Judy MacDonald, Alberta Health Services’ medical health officer, says some people take the shot for granted.

“Some people think, for instance, that they’re not going to get influenza therefore they don’t need to get immunized, but they’ve just been lucky if they haven’t gotten influenza yet because it’s not a pleasant thing to go through and can be very serious,” says MacDonald.

Tip of the iceberg

Last year in Alberta alone, 64 people died of the flu and 4,271 lab-confirmed cases of the flu were recorded.

Lab-confirmed refers to people who went to their doctor and were tested for the virus. It doesn’t include people with influenza who didn’t visit the doctor, or did, and were sent home without being tested.

This flu season is projected to be the worst yet with 300 confirmed cases already in Alberta this year. Graphic created by Robyn Welsh.

According to MacDonald, that’s a conservative estimate.

“When we look at that number, that’s just, as we say, the tip of the iceberg,” she explains, referring to those with influenza who were not tested.

How effective is the flu shot, really?

The process of creating the vaccine is more complicated than many people believe. Nearly eight months before flu season begins, the World Health Organization communicates an educated prediction to the manufacturers of the influenza vaccine to tell them what strains to include. This year, the vaccine includes four strains, two A-strains and two B-strains.

The effectiveness of the vaccine is then confirmed at the end of the season. While this may not seem like a foolproof method to dodging influenza, MacDonald says it’s better than nothing.

The estimated effectiveness of last year’s influenza vaccine was 42 per cent.

“If you don’t get immunized, don’t get the vaccine, then you’ve got no chance of being protected against influenza,” she says.

Group immunity

Despite the flu resulting in hospitalization and death, some clinics are still seeing reduced numbers this year.

Mount Royal University hosts a clinic every year for students, faculty and staff. While numbers have been high in the past, they missed their target of 1,100 vaccines administered, reaching only 800.

Francesca Simon, Mount Royal University’s Wellness Services administrator says getting the flu shot goes beyond just yourself.

“It really became a question for me of the collective good for vaccination, and that’s what made the difference for me.” – Francesca Simon

“My best friend was back in Montreal, she was battling breast cancer, she was in chemotherapy. I was travelling on a plane to go visit her and one of our nurses said, ‘Are you really willing to take the chance that you’re not going to carry something over that you may be fine with, but she may not be fine with?’ And that shifted me,” she says.

The bottomline — the more people who have the shot, the less likely those who can’t get it will get sick.

“It really became a question for me of the collective good for vaccination, and that’s what made the difference for me,” Simon adds.

While the final numbers of confirmed influenza cases, hospitalization and fatality rates won’t be available until the season is over, to date, 300 cases of influenza in Alberta have been confirmed.

The influenza vaccine is offered until the end of March but is available now through Alberta Health Services, as well as some pharmacies and physicians. MacDonald urges people to get the flu shot as soon as possible.

“Influenza is here now, so my question would be what are you waiting for?”

Alberta Health Services requires everyone to answer a set of questions on a form regarding the flu shot prior to it being administered. Photo by Amber McLinden.

Flu Facts FAQ with Alberta’s top doc, Judy MacDonald

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

The Calgary Journal caught up with Alberta Health Services’ medical health officer, Judy MacDonald. Her Q&A about flu facts comes as experts predict Alberta’s worst flu season. 

What are 3 reasons I should get the flu shot?

  1. It’s the best way to protect yourself against influenza and its complications.
  2. It helps to protect those you’re working with, because you’re not bringing influenza into that workspace or classroom.
  3. It protects people in your family, some of whom may not respond well to influenza vaccines.

What can I expect following my flu shot?

It’s given by injection, so sometimes people may have some soreness, pain, redness, a little bit of swelling at the injection site for one or two days afterwards. That’s normal. It’s just a sign that your body is reacting to the vaccine and starting to produce immunity. People can also get mild fever and maybe some muscle aches and pains again for one or two days. It’s just your body’s immune system reacting and producing antibodies to the vaccine. Many people have no reactions at all.

Can the flu shot make me sick?

The influenza vaccine we use cannot result in influenza. What can happen is people either don’t get immunized in time or they get exposed before the vaccine has taken effect, and can develop influenza because their body hadn’t finished responding to the vaccine to protect them. They may also get something else that has influenza-like symptoms, like parainfluenza, or respiratory syncytial virus infection or any number of other respiratory viruses that tag along with influenza at this time of year.

How late in the season can I get the flu shot?

We started our program this year on Oct. 23, so the vaccine is available until the end of March. However, influenza is here now, so my question would be, “What are you waiting for?”

Can I get the flu shot when I’m sick?

We recommend that if you’ve got mild illness like a cold, a mild fever or some sniffles, that’s not a reason to not get the influenza vaccine, especially because it would be hard to get you to come back to get it again. However, if you are too unwell to be out, you’ve got moderate to high fever, and you don’t know what’s going on with your health, it’s probably best to wait. This is because if you get the vaccine and your symptoms worsen, you may blame it on the vaccine which isn’t likely. It’s likely whatever else was brewing.

What pre-existing conditions mean I cannot get the flu shot?

There are very few people who cannot get influenza vaccine and that would be individuals that have, from past experience, had severe allergic reactions, like anaphylaxis, to influenza vaccine, or any of its components. That’s why the rest of us should do our part to protect them, because they can’t get the vaccine.

Where can I get my flu shot?

Alberta Health Services has clinics running until the end of March, and many pharmacies also administer free flu shots. Some physicians also get a number of flu vaccines to administer. There are many options for you to choose from.

amclinden@cjournal.ca 

Edited by Amy Simpson | asimpson@cjournal.ca 

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