TORONTO – Last winter flu was almost non-existent due to closures and public health measures to reduce COVID-19 cases, but experts warn that this year we could see a resurgence.
Traditionally, winter marks the start of cold and flu season, as people go indoors to avoid the cold. Last year, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported just 79 laboratory-confirmed influenza cases in its 2020-2021 season, a fraction of the 54,000 cases recorded the previous year.
But now doctors across the country are reporting an increase in the number of children and adults with colds and respiratory viruses.
“Without a doubt, we are going to see the flu this year higher than last year,” Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease expert, told CTVNews.ca.
“Whether this is some sort of classic seasonal surge as we usually see it, or whether it’s always mitigated by the fact that we still have quite a bit of public health action in many places in Canada, it’s still happening. is the variable we don’t know what impact this is going to have.
The minuscule amount of flu cases last year was a byproduct of all the masks, physical distancing and lockdowns that have been implemented to tackle COVID-19. But with more than 87% of the eligible population vaccinated, in parts of the country these public health measures have eased, leading doctors to wonder if the flu will make a comeback.
It’s hard to be sure. There are not a lot of viruses circulating at the moment
Dr. Donald Vinh, of the McGill University Health Center, told CTV News that there has been “dramatically low influenza activity in many countries, in many parts of the world, including the southern hemispheres, which is generally a harbinger of what we expect in the northern hemispheres.
“So some people interpret that to mean that we might have a mild flu season in terms of the number of cases,” he said.
On the flip side, there is concern that, because there has been a lower amount of influenza circulating since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this decrease in exposure may lead to an outdated immune repertoire, where people may not have antibodies in place. to date to fight against current influenza strains.
A preprint study published in late August, still awaiting formal review, predicted what it called a “major compensatory influenza season in 2021-2022” due to a light season last winter.
Some are already seeing a sharp increase in colds and other respiratory viruses across the country. The worry is that the flu could follow.
“This could lead to more severe flu seasons, especially for those at risk in terms of hospitalizations and death,” Vinh said.
Already, the World Health Organization reports that while COVID-19 infections dominated most of 2020 and 2021, there is now a marked increase in influenza cases around the world.
“We really hope that part of the reduction in influence that we saw last year could be due to the fact that COVID was circulating at the same time,” Evans said. “But if that doesn’t happen this year, then we’re in the infamous, what people like to call the ‘twindemic,’ which are two viruses that cause a lot of cases, which can lead to serious illness, and that would be be very difficult for the system to manage.
If influenza cases were to increase along with COVID-19, it could mean critically ill COVID-19 and influenza patients could fight for the same resources, such as intensive care beds and ventilators this time. winter.
A study released this month in Australia titled “The Importance of Influenza Vaccination During the COVID-19 Pandemic” noted that the flu was improving in some countries and could “pose a renewed threat in the next northern hemisphere winter ”, although influenza circulation is currently low.
Co-authored by Dr Ian G. Barr, WHO Collaborating Center for Influenza Reference and Research, Melbourne, the study states that “Viruses are still in circulation and can be quickly transported when domestic travel. planes come back, leading to an increase in infections ”, anticipating a possible flu. outbreaks later this year.
“Flu vaccination […] should not be ignored, ”the report said.
Research in the UK also suggests that the two vaccines can be given at the same time safely.
And a study from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, published in PLoS One this summer, found that the flu vaccine may even offer additional protection against serious outcomes if a person contracts COVID-19. In two cohorts of 37,000 people, those who had received an influenza vaccine had a decrease in sepsis and strokes associated with COVID-19 and had fewer emergency room visits.
People in the study who caught COVID-19 and had not received the flu shot were up to 20% more likely to have been admitted to intensive care.
“While it is not yet clear exactly how the influenza vaccine provides protection against COVID-19, most theories speculate that the influenza vaccine can strengthen the innate immune system – the general defenses we are born with that don’t protect not against a specific disease, “said a press release on the study.
It is important to note that the influenza vaccine does not replace a COVID-19 vaccine in any way.
“It’s safe to get the COVID shot, whether it’s your first or your second dose, and your flu shot at the same time, regardless of when everyone is,” he told CTV Ajit Johal, pharmacist and clinical director of Immunize.io. New.
Children as young as six months old can get the flu shot, and measures like masking and staying home when sick – even with something other than COVID-19 – are essential this winter, experts say.
“If you have symptoms that could be something contagious, COVID or not, please, please don’t mix with others, don’t go to work, don’t go to school, find a way to stay home until the symptoms are gone, because you’re going to wreak havoc, ”Noah Ivers, family physician and research chair at the University of Montreal, told CTV News. Canada at Women’s College Hospital and University of Toronto.
And as the weather cools, fall flu clinics will soon be opening across the country, as public health pushes every ounce of prevention into yet another pandemic winter.