By Nikki Jamieson
With the 2016/2017 flu season winding down, southern Alberta has only reported 17 flu outbreaks in this past flu season as of March 18.
Considering how there have been a total of 163 outbreaks to date across the province, southern Albertans are staying rather healthy.
But that doesn’t mean that they can relax next year. In the 2015-2016 season, Alberta Health Services, at the same time last year, reported only 37 outbreaks throughout the entire province, although influenza A(H1N1) did account for 67 per cent of lab-confirmed cases at that time.
“It seems to be a trend, when people, you can see when the population tends to experience not that bad of a flu season, there is a considerable drop off,” said Rick Siemens, pharmacy manager at London Drugs in Lethbridge. “You are getting some pockets of influenza across the country, but in Lethbridge, we really haven’t been hit as hard as we’ve had in previous years.”
The issue is that once there is a decline in vaccinations, there tends to be higher cases of that disease occur. Additionally, with high levels, at least 85 per cent, of vaccinations for a disease, you have herd immunity, which helps protect people who are not or cannot be immunized against that.
“What’s happening, I think now, is that we are starting to see pockets of vaccination rates that are very poor,” said Siemens. “A lot of people just don’t understand that influenza (vaccinations), it’s not necessarily just to prevent the disease, and more importantly, for adults for the flu shot, we’re not actually looking in all cases to prevent it… as you know, we won’t necessarily always be able to prevent them, but if you get sick, you get less sick.”
“It’s more about protecting people that are more at risk; young children, elderly, people who are really sick. You might have the flu and you survive and it’s not a big deal. But you give it to somebody else, and then they can die. A lot of people don’t realize how many people almost die or, you know, very much die in Canada every year because of a preventable problem with influenza.”
So far this flu season, there have been a total of 53 flu-related deaths in Alberta. In the last flu season, a total of 62 deaths were reported.
The influenza vaccine contains inactive strains of what flu viruses are believed to be more active that year, and is traditionally injected into the arm muscle.
Its aim is to introduce a very small sample of what doctors believe to be the predominate flu viruses of that year into your body, so you can build up antibodies to it. It takes two weeks for the vaccines to start working, so you still can get sick in that timeframe. Doctors can also guess wrong and choose the wrong strains for the vaccine, leaving you susceptible to the predominate strains of that season. However, the vaccine is still considered to be the best defence against the flu virus, and AHS recommends that everyone age six or older gets an annual flu shot.
But there are still some common misconceptions about the shot. Some believe it doesn’t work and others say that it causes other health problems.
“The vaccine is safe, it cannot cause the flu,” said Siemens.
“I think it’s a really important role for pharmacies and doctors and other health care professionals should really try to tell people and dispel those myths, tell them the real answers to those questions when they have them.”
“It’s a free vaccine, and it’s not often the government is going to give you a free vaccine. You can tell they think its important is they’re going to give it to you for free.”
Flu shot providers are required to report any unusual side effects of the vaccine.
While side-effects such as a sore arm or a small fever that goes away are considered normal side effects, if someone starts seeing something like “pink elephants, and you don’t usually see pink elephants”, it gets reported in a data base which keeps track of these side effects. If a trend of people seeing pink elephants after taking a flu shot starts emerging, then there is a problem.
“Most drugs we don’t have that great of system in place. You know there’s side effects from medications people find all the time, and then it doesn’t get reported to the database. Vaccines… we know people are worried and we know we want to make sure they’re safe. So it’s one of the highest monitored interventions we have in Canada, and in the world probably.”
Flu season typically last from October to May.
While the flu shot is available during that time, Siemens recommends taking it as early in the flu season as possible.
That way, you are immunized throughout the majority of the season.
“With physicians being able to give it, and, more importantly, almost every pharmacy gives it to you, you just have to come in anytime, it really makes it easier to get it.”
As of press deadline, according to AHS, there have been 3,816 laboratory confirmed cases of the flu in Alberta, with 1,351 people being admitted to the hospital because of it. Out of the 4.146 million people in Alberta, about 1,153,000 received a flu shot.
“We’re starting to see things like the mumps, which is something we’ve pretty much eradicated before. It comes back to the point that there is a lot of miscommunication about vaccines, and people who have questions can talk to a health care professional, talk to somebody, look online — but look on reputable sites. Look at Health Canada, look at some of the ones that have done, you can see the evidence, it’s not somebodies blog, it’s somebody with some credible evidence, and read the stuff that’s there,” said Siemens.
“It’s not about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting others.”