Experts anticipate milder year for influenza, despite holiday flu spike in B.C.

Despite a spike in flu cases around the province, experts say B.C. may finally have a milder winter of illness compared to the past few years.

In its latest influenza surveillance report, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) says the number of people with the flu increased sharply over the holidays, but it hasn't resulted in a crush of patients heading to emergency rooms.

Dr. Danuta Skowronski, lead epidemiologist for influenza at the BCCDC, says health officials often see a spike in cases at this time of year due to people mingling over the holidays. This year though, the increase, so far, is within or below historic averages.

She says early indications in B.C. point to a less severe flu season.

"In Canada we've had several back-to-back seasons of moderate to severe epidemics for the past few years," she said. "Going into this season we were anticipating that maybe we were off the hook a little bit this year with maybe a milder season and that is what seems to be panning out."

Influenza, or the flu, is an infection of the upper airway caused by an influenza virus. In Canada, there are generally more outbreaks of the flu during the fall, winter and early spring.

Health Canada estimates influenza causes approximately 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.

Unusual activity

Skowronski says what's unusual so far this season is that influenza B — a strain that tends to be milder than Type A —  is circulating more widely. It usually peaks later in the season. It also affects younger people more than the elderly. As a result there have been fewer hospitalizations and deaths related to flu so far, she said.

While both forms of influenza are circulating, officials say there are other viruses — such as the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and common cold — going around that are also making people sick.

"We've got a kind of smorgasbord of the respiratory viruses out there now," said Skowronski.

She said most people will recover with adequate rest and hydration. She also advises that people cough into their sleeves, properly dispose of tissues, and practise proper hand-washing to prevent the spread of illnesses.

It's also not too late to get a flu shot, Skowronski added, although it's more effective to get it earlier in the season.

The centre won't know for at least another month how effective this year's shot is against the types of influenza that are circulating.

Pneumonia outbreak in China

The latest report from the BCCDC also addresses a pneumonia outbreak that has made around 60 people sick in Central China. The people who became sick in late December were linked to seafood markets with live animals, but officials have yet to exactly figure out what's causing the illness.

The BCCDC says until more is known, it wants clinicians in B.C. to ask all patients presenting with severe acute respiratory illness about any travel in the two weeks prior to the onset of the illness.