With the holiday season comes a much less cheery part of the calendar: flu season. Viruses such as the flu like colder temperatures and low humidity. The tiny respiratory droplets that hold the nasty bugs stay in the air so they’re more easily transmitted from person to person. In the summer, when the air is more humid, the droplets accumulate more water and fall harmlessly to the ground.
“Typically we get flu season starting (with) sporadic cases around now, with an increase in late December and early January,” said Rob Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer, in an interview this week.
“In the last week, there have been 10 in total so we’re certainly starting to see the beginning of an increase in flu activity.”
Most people who get the flu recover after two to three weeks of coughing, fever and body aches. But it can be deadly, particularly for seniors and those with underlying health conditions that heighten their susceptibility to respiratory infections. Last year, there were 27 flu-related deaths and 24 admissions to intensive care in Nova Scotia.
Immunization is our most potent weapon against the flu (followed by the usual admonitions to regularly wash your hands, sneeze and cough into your sleeve, and stay home when you’re sick). Each year, researchers around the world study the latest variations of this adaptable virus and come up with antibodies that best match the bug and protect people against infection.
Everyone six months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every year. But that never happens.
Nova Scotia has the highest rate of immunization in Canada and less than half of us, about 45 per cent, get the shot. The rates are even lower, closer to 43 per cent, among the health-care providers who are in regular contact with those most susceptible to the virus.
“We don’t have nearly the number of health-care workers or the percentage of health-care workers as we really should,” Strang said.
“That creates significant risks of transmitting influenza from health-care provider to patient, and many of the people that are receiving health care are some of the most vulnerable and at the greatest risk for severe influenza.”
That’s not to say getting the vaccine guarantees you won’t get the flu. Sometimes the vaccine doesn’t match up well against the current viruses — this year it’s H3N2 and variations of the B strain, Strang said.
This year in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia, which has its flu season in our summer months, the effectiveness was as low as 10 per cent.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in for a hard flu season as well in Canada, Strang said.
“We had a lot of H3N2 disease last season . . . so there might be some residual protection from that year so it’s hard to make accurate predictions and I’ve learned the hard way on this.”
But even a less effective vaccine is better than no vaccine at all, he said.
“So our key message still is . . . reminding people who haven’t yet been vaccinated that it’s still not too late in the next few weeks to get immunized. We know the more people that have been immunized even with a less-thanoptimum vaccine . . . will help prevent the spread as well.”
The vaccine is available free from most pharmacists, family doctors, family practice nurses and nurse practitioners. Many workplaces also offer flu vaccination clinics for employees. Families with children under the age of five can also arrange their vaccination through the local Public Health office.