Get a flu shot as soon as possible, the Canadian Paediatric Society urged families on Friday, as respiratory viruses continue to seriously sicken some babies and young children across the country.
Nationally, flu activity continued to "increase sharply," the Public Health Agency of Canada said in its FluWatch report for the week ending Nov. 12. "All surveillance indicators are increasing and are above expected levels typical of this time of year."
Indicators include people self-reporting cough and fever at levels beyond the norm for this time of year as well as visits to doctors or nurse practitioners for flu-like symptoms.
The agency declared the start of the annual flu epidemic earlier this week, more than a month earlier than the average before the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitalizations associated with flu are also at levels typically seen at the peak of influenza season, with a sharp rise among children and teens.
The influenza flu vaccine is especially important for young children, who are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus, said Dr. Laura Sauvé, chair of the society's infectious diseases and immunization committee.
Surge of viruses
The surge in influenza comes as other illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) among children are pushing beyond the capacity of pediatric hospitals in Canada, leading to long waits for those who aren't the most seriously sick or injured.
Also on Friday, following a directive issued by Ontario Health, youth aged 16 and older needing emergency care or admission to an in-patient unit in Ottawa are being told to go to other hospitals in the region, with some exceptions, to help relieve pressure on CHEO, the children's hospital in Ottawa.
Dr. Lindy Sampson, the hospital's chief of staff and chief medical officer, said today the intensive care unit where the sickest patients go is at exactly double the numbers who are usually cared for there. Most current ICU patients are in their first few years of life, Sampson said.
Sampson told reporters that the surge is expected to continue for four to six weeks.
No child has died from influenza or RSV this season at the hospital, Sampson said.
CHEO officials said they are seeing a disproportionately high number of children showing the highest level of illness and needing resuscitation.
Sampson also urged people to put masks back on in indoor spaces, stay home when sick, take advantage of the availability of vaccines for influenza and COVID-19, and continue the basics of washing your hands and taking care of each other.
Sauvé gave similar advice.
'No one magic solution'
"There's no one magic solution that will prevent all respiratory infections, but we need to continue to use all of the layers of protection," Sauvé said in an interview.
Sauvé said babies are most at risk from serious illness from RSV. Children who are immunocompromised are also vulnerable and asthma can be triggered by even a mild bout of respiratory illness, she added.
Influenza levels are also higher than in previous years for this time of year in parts of the country, PHAC said.
Doctors say other factors, such as burnout and exhaustion among health-care professionals, staffing pressures and a shortage of pain- and fever-reducing medications for young children are also contributing to the most recent challenges on hospitals.
While emergency department visits to some children's hospitals remain high, they are starting to decline at others. It is not yet known if RSV levels have plateaued.
The Canadian Paediatric Society and National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommend that all children six months and older receive an annual influenza vaccine.
It's safe to receive influenza and other vaccines at the same time, NACI says.