Alberta nears end of 'extraordinary' flu season with zero cases recorded

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The absence of flu cases in Alberta this year is unprecedented, said Dr. James Dickinson, a professor of family medicine and community health sciences at the University of Calgary. (CBC - image credit)
The absence of flu cases in Alberta this year is unprecedented, said Dr. James Dickinson, a professor of family medicine and community health sciences at the University of Calgary. (CBC - image credit)

After a year of handwashing, mask wearing and physical distancing, the province is seeing an extraordinarily mild flu season, Alberta doctors say.

As of March 25, Alberta had recorded no confirmed cases of any type of influenza this year after more than 1.6 million tests were administered this flu season.

"Our local experience and really the experience globally is there hasn't been any influenza, and it's quite extraordinary," Dr. Mark Joffe, medical director with Alberta Health Services, said in an interview with CBC's Edmonton AM on Monday.

By the end of the 2019-20 flu season in May, Alberta had recorded 8,470 flu cases. Prior years saw 6,082 confirmed cases in 2018-19 and 9,069 cases in 2017-18.

This kind of drop is unprecedented, said Dr. James Dickinson, a professor of family medicine at the University of Calgary.

"There's been a variety of testing from people going to emergency departments, people who have been admitted to hospital, special sampling of people in the community coming in for COVID testing and part of it is then testing for influenza viruses as well," Dickinson said.

"So there's more testing done than usual, but we're still not finding it."

Usually around this time of year, Dickinson says Influenza B might rise in one final bump in flu season, but generally cases would be dropping as the weather warms up.

It's not known which of the health restrictions have been the most effective in keeping the flu at bay, he said.

Fewer people flying into Alberta internationally and people quarantining at home when sick have been helpful, Dickinson said.

"I hope that people will use face masks when they've got coughs and colds and be more willing to stay home and work from home when they've got something that's potentially infectious," Dickinson said.

"Those are changes we can expect people should persist with."

The same practices have been effective at reducing case numbers for a variety of winter viruses, he added.

For example, pediatric hospitals often admit children with pneumonia but not this year, which has been a startling change, Dickinson said.

The absence of flu cases is allowing the province to focus on COVID-19.

"We really are at a race here between the variants and the vaccine, and our hope is that we can vaccinate enough Albertans to try and keep the variants at bay," Joffe said Monday.

If the current trend continues, Joffe said, it's inevitable more Albertans, young and old, will develop severe illnesses and end up in hospital or intensive care.