Flu bug gets ugly in Alberta: H1N1 rates soar across province

“Even if flu season is hitting its peak soon, it’s not too late to get a shot. There’s going to be as many cases on the way down (from the peak) as on the way up. You’ll still be protected if you haven’t had influenza”

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Soaring flu hospitalizations are contributing to overstuffed hospital wards in Alberta — and the peak is yet to come.

That’s according to the province’s respiratory virus dashboard, which is charting spikes in lab-confirmed seasonal cases of this year’s dominant H1N1 strain, as well as severe outcomes of influenza and Covid strains.

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“It’s actually a fairly aggressive flu season,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital.

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The silver lining, if it can be called that, is that H1N1 (also known as a “pandemic strain” from the pandemic scare of 2009) is addressed by the current flu vaccine in the Northern Hemisphere, Saxinger said, so people who have their flu vaccination up to date are expected to have a reduced risk of the flu or its severity.

A surprising number of hospitalizations in the 18-65 age group suggests more people should get vaccinated for the flu, she said.

While the public dashboard says vaccination rates aren’t available, it is tracked by the province elsewhere, Saxinger said, noting that provincial data tracking vaccination suggests that early vaccinations were strong but fewer people are getting immunization later in the campaign.

“The perception is that there’s not as visible messaging around influenza vaccine importance,” she said. Not underscoring vaccination importance would be a mistake — even at this stage of the game, she said.

“Even if flu season is hitting its peak soon, it’s not too late to get a shot. There’s going to be as many cases on the way down (from the peak) as on the way up. You’ll still be protected if you haven’t had influenza.”

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Back before flu vaccines, as many as 10 per cent of the population used to get the flu with its attending fevers, headache and cough.

“That’s far worse than being tired of a sore arm,” Saxinger said.

There’s a general rule of thumb — overestimating the inconvenience of getting a shot often goes hand-in-hand with underestimating the inconvenience and risk of getting a severe infection, she said.

“That’s a bad combination.”

Health-care workers tend to be good at getting their vaccines, and most health centres have masking in place —two factors that reduce staff illnesses.

“There’s good data that when health care workers get immunized, there’s a lower death rate among people who live there,” Saxinger said.

While the flu generally spreads from south to north across the globe, provincial spread is typically “a multi-seeding event with rapid upticks all over the place,” she said.

“(This year’s tracking graph) has a similar shape to last year, a very aggressive upswing,” she said.

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Since reported numbers lag, it’s hard to tell exactly when — and where — the flu will peak this year.

 “If we’re not at peak, we’re probably close,” Saxinger said.

Circulation of respiratory viruses is normally highest in the fall and winter, and 2023-2024 is no different.

So far in the 2023-2024 flu season, there were 777 hospitalizations and 98 ICU admissions, and there have been 26 deaths due to influenza so far this season.

There have been 1,339 lab-confirmed cases in Edmonton and 1,418  in  Calgary.

The majority of flu-related hospital admissions and ICU admissions are among the 40 and over crowd. The death rate among hospitalizations for flu overall is 0.6 per cent. While the numbers suggest kids are getting the flu and getting hospitalized, there were no juvenile flu deaths reported as of the Dec. 2 numbers.

Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul Parks confirmed the flu has yet to hit its seasonal peak — but hospital and emergency room capacity have surged past their limits.

“This is very early for us to peak with these kind of volumes, that’s why we’re very concerned,” he said.

“It’s as bad as we’ve seen it in 25 years, that’s how bad it is right now,” Parks said.

Based on an August-to-August respiratory season, the dashboard includes RSV cases and positivity rates, but severe outcomes data on RSV is still to come.

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