As flu season spreads across Canada and new research suggests the illness could pose a longer-term burden for some, health officials and experts are reminding the public of the importance of getting vaccinate.
It’s been almost three weeks since the start of the flu season was officially declared in Canada and we are starting to see cases increase in some regions, at the same time as COVID-19 cases are trending higher and higher.
Flu levels in Alberta are currently the highest in 14 years. Data from British Columbia shows an increase in influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). And the number of flu cases reported in Manitoba hospitals is putting a strain on the health-care system, Manitoba Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara said Thursday.
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, wrote in a statement Thursday that “respiratory illness season is well underway in Canada” and that influenza, RSV and COVID-19 are all circulating Right now.
“If you haven’t already, now is a good time to get your up-to-date flu and COVID-19 vaccinations.”
John Papastergiou, a Toronto-based pharmacist, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that the flu vaccine should not be an afterthought.
“Each year, influenza causes significant morbidity and even mortality among many Canadians,” he said. “The most vulnerable are obviously the young and the very old, but in reality it can affect us all. The only real way to combat this is to get vaccinated to protect our elderly – we protect the younger members of our community. our family – and obviously, to protect you.”
He added that it’s important to get vaccinated as early as possible during flu season to get ahead of the increase in cases, and that we will soon be approaching that peak.
“LONG FLU” STUDY
A study published Thursday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases suggests that the flu could create a long-term burden similar to that of long COVID, on a less drastic scale.
The study looked at 81,000 patients in the United States hospitalized with COVID-19 between 2020 and 2022, as well as nearly 11,000 patients hospitalized with seasonal flu at some point between 2015 and 2019, and tracked their progress until at 18 months after infection.
“Five years ago, it would not have occurred to me to consider the possibility of a ‘long flu,'” Ziyad Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, in Missouri, and lead author of the study. , said in a statement.
“A major lesson we learned from SARS-CoV-2 is that an infection initially thought to cause only brief illness can also lead to chronic disease.”
Data confirmed that COVID-19 was significantly more deadly than the flu, with COVID-19 patients facing a 50% higher risk of death, as well as a much higher risk of 64 health problems different in all organ systems.
However, the study also showed that flu was capable of causing long-term damage increasing the risk of developing six different health problems later in life, mainly to the respiratory system.
“The big answer is that both COVID-19 and the flu have led to long-term health problems,” Al-Aly said. “Long COVID is much more of a health problem than COVID, and long flu is much more of a health problem than the flu.”
Papastergiou called the research “not surprising at all,” saying that damage done during the acute phase of an illness makes the body more vulnerable to future illnesses.
“Once you’ve had a serious case of the flu, or COVID, we know for sure that it puts you at risk for future cases,” he said.
“I think it’s not surprising when you have something like the flu, or flu-related pneumonia, it’s also a massive inflammatory cascade. And that potentially has long-term consequences – the risk of disease cardiovascular and everything else.”
That’s one reason why vaccination is so important, he said.
Myths about the flu vaccine
People at risk of developing a severe case of the flu tend to be the same groups at high risk for severe cases of COVID-19: those who are pregnant, have underlying health conditions, are immunocompromised, or are 65 or older. more.
Young children are also at high risk for severe cases of flu, especially children aged six months to five years, which is not the case with COVID-19.
The flu vaccine greatly reduces the likelihood of developing a severe case and ending up in the hospital with the flu, Papastergiou said.
“This year I’m seeing a little more hesitancy about the flu vaccine than in previous years,” he said.
“A lot of myths now are ‘I’ve had COVID and flu shots in the past, I don’t need them again this year’ (or) ‘I’ve had too many shots lately.’ , it can’t be good.'”
But the flu vaccine is different every year, optimized for the flu strain that researchers predict will be the most dominant based on Australia’s flu season, which comes before ours. And health experts recommend getting a flu shot every year, regardless of when you received the COVID-19 vaccine.
At Papastergiou’s job at a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Toronto, about half of their patients receive their COVID-19 booster shot and their flu shot during the same appointment, usually one in the right arm and one in the left arm.
“We really recommend co-administration with the COVID booster, the most recent version,” he said.
It’s perfectly safe to receive both at the same time, but it might make you a little more sore for about 24 hours, he added.
Health Canada has authorized three XBB.1.5 vaccines, capable of targeting new variants of COVID-19, and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is urging all Canadians to get their updated booster shots in a context of increased COVID-19 activity this fall.
TRIPLE THREAT SEASON
During the first year of the pandemic, the flu virtually disappeared in Canada – flu rates were so low in 2020-2021, with only 66 confirmed cases, compared to more than 43,000 usually, that there was no technically didn’t have a real flu season, because the cases never happened. were high enough to meet the threshold needed to declare one.
This immense drop was largely linked to public health measures put in place to combat COVID-19, including mask wearing and physical distancing.
As health measures eased before disappearing completely, flu rates rose again. This year, Papastergiou expects a bigger flu season, similar to pre-pandemic levels. He says immunocompromised people should definitely wear masks in settings where many people are in close contact.
“The benefits of masks are well documented,” he said. “They reduce the incidence of flu, COVID and other respiratory illnesses.”
PHAC also recommends wearing a mask during flu season.
In his statement Thursday, Tam said measures to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading respiratory illnesses include “properly wearing a high-quality, well-fitted respirator or mask in indoor public places , regular hand hygiene and improved indoor ventilation.
If you get the flu, it’s important to stay home if you can to avoid spreading it to others. Over-the-counter cold medications will also help relieve symptoms.
“If you’ve been vaccinated, the virus will run its course more quickly,” Papastergiou said, adding that while the most vulnerable patients can receive prescription oral flu treatments, none of them replace the flu vaccine. influenza.
Seniors looking for a flu vaccine should know that while high-dose flu shots may be weak in some areas because they tend to be given first, experts say it’s best to receive a regular dose rather than waiting.
“As a senior, I would not leave vaccination aside to seek a high-dose vaccine,” he said. “Get vaccinated early with whatever is available.”