Early flu cases could be harbinger of a bad season: B.C. expert
The influenza season in Canada is shaping up to be a potentially nasty one, with a mixed bag of viruses already circulating in much of the country, say infectious diseases experts.
There are also concerns that this yearâ€™s flu shot may not be all that effective in preventing the respiratory illness.
â€œThereâ€™s all kinds of speculation going on because of the experience in the Southern Hemisphere,â€� said Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, referring in particular to Australia.
â€œThey had quite a substantial epidemic due to H3N2, so thereâ€™s a lot of speculation that thatâ€™s foreboding a severe season for us also,â€� she said from Vancouver.
H3N2 is a subtype of influenza A, viruses which tend to cause more severe disease in some segments of the population, specifically the elderly and young children.
At the end of its flu season in mid-August, Australia had more than 93,000 laboratory-confirmed cases â€” almost 2.5 times the number of infections and double the number of hospitalizations and deaths compared to the previous year, the countryâ€™s disease surveillance system reported.
â€œBut we cannot say we will go on to experience the kind of severe season Australia had, in part because we ourselves had a fairly severe epidemic due to H3N2 in 2016-17,â€� Skowronski said. â€œAnd that may dampen down the contribution of H3N2 this season, which would be a good thing.â€�
However, Australia also experienced significant cases of influenza B, said Skowronski, and parts of Canada appear to be mimicking that pattern in the early months of the Northern Hemisphereâ€™s flu season.
In B.C., for instance, low levels of H3N2 infection have been confirmed since the beginning of the season in late August, but a strain known as B/Yamagata has also been found circulating within the population.
â€œAnd this is very early. Weâ€™re having about five times the amount of influenza B pickup during the autumn period in British Columbia than we typically have,â€� she said. â€œWe donâ€™t normally see this kind of influenza B uptick until February, so this is quite unusual.
â€œIf this persists, there could be kind of a double-barrelled threat with B/Yamagata and influenza A/H3N2.â€�
In its weekly FluWatch report, the Public Health Agency of Canada says the annual sneezing-coughing season began early this year â€” especially with illness due to influenza B â€” and the percentage of laboratory-positive tests for flu is higher at this point on the calendar compared with previous seasons.
As of Nov. 25, almost 2,100 lab-confirmed cases had been detected in various parts of the country, of which 84 per cent were influenza A. Those infections resulted in 371 hospitalizations, including 21 ICU admissions, and eight deaths, the report says.
Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said lab testing in Ontario is turning up â€œquite a lot of B isolates, nearly as many Bs as H3N2.â€�
But she said itâ€™s too early to predict what strain will predominate or how severe the season will be.