The father of five children had been battling the flu for three days and he needed to see a doctor right away.
The 37-year-old suddenly was having trouble breathing and got himself to Cobequid Community Health Centre in Lower Sackville.
From there, he was transferred to Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax where he eventually went into cardiac arrest and died five hours later, on March 7.
His mother, who spoke to The Chronicle Herald on the condition of anonymity to protect her son’s identity, is telling his story to warn other young adults in particular about the potentially lethal consequences of avoiding the flu shot. Her son wasn’t vaccinated. Before being struck down by the flu, he was completely healthy, she said.
“This happened only two days after he got the flu, and if it happened to him it can happen to anyone,” she said. “My son’s death was a tragedy but if his story pushes someone to get vaccinated then something good can come from such a terrible loss.”
Unlike last year’s flu season, it’s not just seniors over the age of 65 who are dying this time around in Nova Scotia. Swine flu (H1N1) emerged as the predominant flu strain this season, overtaking H3N2 and putting a younger demographic at risk of infection.
The provincial Department of Health confirmed that so far this flu season at least eight people between the ages of 45 and 64 have died after contracting the flu. But the department has not made those statistics public. It refuses to provide other important information, including the ages of the people, whether they had been infected with H1N1 or had been vaccinated.
The provincial Department of Health confirmed that so far this flu season at least eight people between the ages of 45 and 64 have died after contracting the flu.
Those figures also don’t include 12 additional flu-related deaths that were added to the province’s online flu tracking report for the week of March 24. There’s no way of knowing if the man featured in this story is included in those statistics because the province has refused to provide any additional information about those cases.
People in a different age demographic are dying with the flu this year and the government has a responsibility to inform the public, says the grieving mother. That age demographic is also not considered to be high risk for flu complications but people over the age of 65 are. The woman says her son had no chronic or underlying health issues that could have made him vulnerable.
She said the province is also failing to educate the public about serious complications that can arise from the flu. Among them are potentially fatal coinfections caused by several types of bacteria, including streptococcus pneumoniae, haemophilus influenzae, and Group A streptococcus.
A Group A streptococcus coinfection was what ultimately killed her son. The flu virus triggered the coinfection after attacking and breaking down the protective mucous lining of his lungs. That allowed Group A streptococcus bacteria to invade the organ.
“It led to a rapid bleed out of his lungs and he went into cardiac arrest,” she said. “The medical staff did everything they could to save him. They intubated him but then he went into cardiac arrest and they spent five hours trying to save him.”
Dr. Scott Halperin, professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Dalhousie University and director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology, said the young man’s ordeal offers a sobering reminder of how potentially fatal the flu can be and why everyone should get vaccinated. This year’s vaccine had matched up 90 per cent with the predominant H1N1 strain, he said.
“Death is not common with influenza but it occurs frequently enough that if I were somebody in the population I would be getting my flu vaccine,” said Halperin. “People forget about how serious these illnesses are until something happens to them or someone who they know. It’s not serious until it is.
“One of the complications we see a lot of is bacterial pneumonia. Sometimes people get an infection that is resistant to antibiotic treatment. You can die from the flu itself or die of complications of the flu.”
Given H1N1 has been the predominant strain in Nova Scotia, it’s probable that’s what the father of five contracted along with the eight others in the 45 to 64 age group, he said.
There would be fewer flu-related deaths if more people got vaccinated, says Dr. Scott Halperin, professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Dalhousie University and director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology.
In the last few years, H3N2 has been the prominent strain during flu season, resulting in more deaths in the elderly, he said. Last season, 63 people died with the flu and all were over the age of 65.
“This past season, there are more deaths in younger individuals,” said Halperin. “Older individuals tend to be protected because they’ve seen H1N1 before in the past and built up some immunity.”
There would be fewer flu-related deaths if more people got vaccinated, Halperin said. He acknowledged the province was hit with a flu vaccine shortage this season but he attributed this to a lack of uptake in previous years. Provinces must order vaccine prior to the season and their estimates are based on the previous year’s demand.
“There was a shortage because people don’t take up the vaccine but the Department of Health can only order based on what they can predict. There were some people toward the end of the season who wanted the vaccine and couldn’t get it.”
The province’s online flu report doesn’t provide a breakdown of H3N2 and H1N1 cases in the province. So there’s no way of knowing for sure which strain of the virus is more predominant and if one age demographic is more at risk than another. Instead the two strains are lumped together and reported as Type A influenza. The weekly reports do not provide age breakdowns for flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.
But the limited statistics do show a definite trend in the province: Significantly more people under 65 have been diagnosed with Type A influenza so far this season compared to this time last year. In fact, almost three times as many people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed with Type A influenza this season compared to last, jumping to 390 cases from 135 last year. The 45 to 64 age range saw the biggest jump to 166 cases, from 66. Conversely, over the same period there’s been a drop in Type A cases for seniors 65 and older, dipping to 289 from 344 last season.
Karla MacFarlane, Progressive Conservative health critic, says the province is withholding critical health-care information. The evidence shows a new age demographic is vulnerable to the flu strain and residents should have been made aware of this as quickly as possible, she said.
“It’s alarming and for the life of me I can’t understand why they would hide this information from anyone,” said MacFarlane.
“We need to know who’s most vulnerable to this particular flu strain and without that people can’t truly make an informed decision on the steps they must take to protect themselves. It’s a public safety concern. Therefore the information should be out there so people can take the proper safeguards and be prepared for next year.”
She suggests the department is withholding information to avoid public panic.
“I don’t think people panic when they are provided the proper educational background and awareness,” said MacFarlane. “If people are given good, accurate information and direction then they can prepare for the risks ahead.”
Andrew Preeper, Department of Health spokesman, says that all flu-related deaths this year have been in adults but that different strains from year to year may affect age groups differently.
Though the H1N1 strain produced more illness in children, youth and younger adults, he said there was no indication that these age groups were at significantly greater risk of severe illness, hospitalization or death than in other flu seasons.
“Our communication to Nova Scotians remained focused on the prevention of influenza through immunization,” he said.