Vaccine skeptics may say they have a point after Nova Scotia’s last flu season.
Sixty-three people died from influenza during the province’s 2017-2018 flu season, more than double the previous year’s total of 27.
But Dr. Robert Strang said the jump in deaths was normal, although on the high end.
“We certainly had a more significant, more severe flu season last year,” said the province’s public chief health officer in a phone interview Tuesday. “But every indicator we used to track flu last year was within the range of normal.”
The 2017-2018 season was dominated by influenza strain H3N2, which typically results in a more severe season.
Even though 90 to 95 per cent of seniors living in long-term care and 65.5 per cent of people over 65 living in the community were immunized, all 63 people who died were over the age of 65.
“You have a more severe strain, especially in the elderly, coupled with a strain where you tend to get less effectiveness from the vaccine,” Strang explained of H3N2.
Children between the ages of six months to 59 months and pregnant women are among the groups more vulnerable to influenza.
Of those, 38.9 per cent of children in that age group were immunized last year and 16.4 per cent of pregnant women got the vaccine.
“We are fortunate that we did not have any children die last year from influenza, which we’ve had in the past,” said Strang.
Overall, 36.8 per cent of Nova Scotians got an influenza vaccination last year, a slight increase
from 36.5 per cent the previous year.
That number has a lot of room for improvement, said Strang.
“We fully acknowledge that the flu vaccine is not as effective as many of our other vaccines,” said the medical examiner. “But the bottom line is, certainly getting vaccinated gives you more protection than none at all.”
Dr. Katherine O’Brien, who was awarded the Canada 150 Research Chair in Vaccinology and Global Health at Dalhousie University and is to begin work at the university on Dec. 1, said the complexity of influenza strains makes matching vaccinations difficult.
“It’s like the virus wears a coat and it can change, just like we have more than one coat,” said the world-renowned vaccine expert, currently in Baltimore, Md. “The virus any one year may be wearing one coat or wearing a different coat, and the vaccine manufactures and public health world tries to predict what coat that virus will be wearing.”
Deaths can fluctuate from flu season to flu season and it’s not always clear why, said O’Brien.
“But it certainly has some element of whether or not the strains of flu that are circulating are strains for which the general population have a level of immunity for, if they’ve seen before,” she said. As the next flu season approaches Nova Scotia, Strang will continue to monitor the Southern Hemisphere’s current mild flu season as it moves west to east for indications of what’s to come.
The province’s flu shot, free for all Nova Scotians, will be available this fall.
Nova Scotia encourages everyone to be vaccinated, especially elders, youths between the ages of six months to five years, Indigenous Peoples, pregnant women and anyone with chronic medical conditions.