Spread of H1N1 flu across Canada calls for more people to be vaccinated

Toronto has more than 200 confirmed cases of the flu in Toronto and 76 of those are of the H1N1 strain.The deaths of two Toronto residents have officially been linked to the flu, emphasizing the concerns of a powerful influenza working its way across the country and underlining the need for the flu shot.

This winter's flu season has been exceptionally powerful thanks to the resurgence of the H1N1 strain, also known as the swine flu, and an apparent complacency that has come over the country since the strain was last prevalent.

The H1N1 strain of Influenza A was behind the 2009/2010 pandemic responsible for between 151,000 and 575,000 deaths worldwide, including 428 Canadians. While it never exactly left, the H1N1 subtype of Influenza A has remained in the background.

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This year, however, it has returned to the forefront. The Public Health Agency reports that H1N1 has been responsible for most flu-related hospitalizations across the country. At least 13 deaths so far this season have been connected to H1N1. Three deaths in Saskatchewan have been linked to the flu. Five deaths have been reported in a massive Alberta flu spike and the two recent Toronto deaths doubled the number for the province of Ontario.

Cases of H1N1 have also been reported in British Columbia and Manitoba, as well as several eastern provinces.

Quebec is still preparing for the worst of the flu season. Health clinics are still offering free vaccines and officials say 180 cases of influenza – not necessarily H1N1 – were reported in the final week of December.

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Dr. Karl Weiss, chief of infectious diseases and microbiology at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, told the Montreal Gazette that the worst could still be ahead.

“If we start seeing a major increase in Quebec, it will tell us that the peak of the season is coming in a few weeks,” he told the newspaper.

Health officials say strength of this year's flu season is about average, but the prevalence of H1N1 strain is worth noting. The effects can be powerful and, unlike many influenza strains that predominantly affect the elderly and the very young, H1N1 spreads through all ages. There have been 59 flu patients admitted to intensive care units across the country, all of them connected to the H1N1 strain.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, approximately half (51.8 per cent) of reported influenza-associated hospitalizations this season involved people 20-64 years of age; 22.6 per cent were under five years of age.

Reported cases of influenza across the country continued to increase over the final two weeks of December, suggesting the worst could still be ahead in many areas of the country.

With the effects of the strain so serious, people must play an active role in prevention. Yet in Alberta, where the flu outbreak has hit the hardest, only one in five residents has received a flu shot. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are forming strategies to expand the number of people being vaccinated, thought the real responsibility rests on the shoulders of the public.

The flu shot is still available in health clinics across the country and, as they say, it is never too late to get one. Better safe than sorry, especially with no guarantee the worst is behind us.

Photo via CBC News