Alberta's flu season one of the worst in decades, expert cautions

Less than one quarter of Albertans have had their flu shot this season. (Leah Hennel - image credit)
Less than one quarter of Albertans have had their flu shot this season. (Leah Hennel - image credit)

Alberta is in the midst of the worst flu season it has seen in years and it's one of the hardest hit regions in the country.

Influenza cases are spiking early and they've hit levels not seen since 2009, the year the new H1N1 virus emerged.

"The numbers right now approaching what we had seen in 2009, which was by far our worst flu season in the last several decades," said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

"What's really concerning, though, is this curve hasn't started to slow."

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada's FluWatch report, Alberta has some of the most widespread influenza activity in the country.

At the same time, less than one quarter — just 22.5 per cent — of Albertans have gotten their flu shot.

"Vaccine uptake is remarkably low in Alberta this year. We are well behind our average … and Alberta Health has even admitted that our past five-year average is still not sufficient for community level protection."

Rob Easton
Rob Easton

The difference between 2009 and this year, noted Jenne, is there wasn't an effective flu vaccine broadly available targeting the emerging H1N1 virus at the start of that flu season.

This year's vaccine targets both of the strains circulating in the province (H3N2 and, to much a lesser extent, H1N1), he said.

"It has been rough for influenza and other respiratory viruses, certainly, this year," said Dr. Karla Gustafson, a medical officer of health in the Calgary zone.

She is hopeful, though, that flu case numbers could be plateauing.

"It does look like things have settled a bit with two weeks of stable numbers in Alberta. They're high but … it doesn't look like they're climbing now, so we may be getting closer to a peak," said Gustafson.

"But with that, of course, [there are] lots of increased hospitalizations and ICU stays … and, unfortunately, deaths in Alberta from influenza across the ages."

Flu hospitalizations increased by 268 last week. So far this flu season, 818 Albertans have been hospitalized due to influenza, and 80 of them have ended up in intensive care.

Four more flu deaths have been reported for a total of 16 so far this season.

Jenne believes it's too early to know if Alberta has reached its flu peak, adding he'd want to see several more weeks with clear downward trends.

"You have to keep in mind that those numbers are already very high. And we need a significant decline if we're going to slow the viral spread."


Public messaging

Alberta Health Services said it continues to strongly encourage people to book their free flu shots.

It has a provincial advertising campaign running in airports as well as at both the Saddledome and Rogers Place during NHL and lacrosse games.

"It's not too late to get your vaccine," said Gustafson, adding AHS recently opened some vaccination clinics on weekends in an effort to get more children vaccinated. Kids under five must get their flu shots through AHS public health clinics.

The province, meanwhile, launched a text and email campaign on Tuesday, encouraging influenza immunization.

As of Friday afternoon, Alberta Health said it had sent 906,000 texts and 300,000 emails to  people who have previously registered to receive notifications on the Alberta Vaccine Booking System.

Gustafson said wearing a mask in public and staying home when sick can also help stem transmission.

"Sometimes we're most infectious in that day before we get sick or right when we're starting to feel unwell. So … if you have that inkling [that you're] feeling off, that is the most important time to avoid contact with others to help prevent the spread of illness."