Tis the season for coughs and sniffles. That’s why Island Health is urging residents to roll up their sleeves and get their flu shots.
“We know that influenza is responsible for many illnesses every season, and can lead to complications of hospitalizations or even death. That’s why we have a public immunization program every season,” said Dee Hoyano, medical health officer with Island Health.
Recent statistics suggest the flu is responsible for 12,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths each year in Canada.
Hoyano said it’s especially important for seniors, children under five, pregnant woman and those with serious health conditions to be immunized against influenza.
“The groups that are the most at risk are the ones who may suffer the most serious effects of flu – pneumonia is one of the most common things, but it can also make other conditions worse, like heart conditions,” she said. “There’s quite a long list of conditions – not necessarily things that people would think of as serious health conditions, like asthma for instance. An influenza infection can make them very sick.”
And the worst is still ahead, as Hoyano says peak flu season generally hits toward the end of the year and into early January.
“Right now we’re at levels we expected. We’re not seeing signs that we’re having a lot of early activity, but we definitely expect the amount of flu circulating to go up over the next month. “
Hoyano said close to 250,000 doses of vaccine have been sent out this year by Island Health, which serves a population of about 765,000, but she doesn’t know how many of those doses have been distributed in vaccines.
And even those who have received the vaccine aren’t necessarily protected against the most prevalent strains.
“I wouldn’t call it a shot in the dark. There’s a lot of consideration given to what strains are predicted to be the most likely to be around,” said Hoyano, adding the vaccine must be produced before it is known what strains will be the most common.
While it is still too early to say which strain will be most prevalent this year, Hoyano says the Influenza B strain that is being seen frequently here on the Island is covered in the four-strain vaccination given primarily to children but not the three-strain dose most adults receive.
“It’s too early in the season to say [what the vaccine effectiveness will be]. Last year it was in the range of 30 to 40 per cent reduction in risk,” said Hoyano, adding that the flu shot is just one way to prevent illness.
She also recommends washing your hands frequently, staying home from work when you’re sick and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
“It’s a very safe vaccine. On average, it reduces your risk of illness between 40 and 60 per cent,” she said. “It’s not going to eliminate influenza in our community, but it certainly helps reduce that risk of you getting sick and also passing it on to somebody who might be vulnerable.”
One of the concerns expressed by those opposed to the vaccine is that in contains harmful ingredients, including aluminum.
“I’m not aware of aluminum being in the flu vaccines we’re using this year on the Island,” said Hoyano. “There is sometimes an adjuvant [included in the vaccine] that helps boost the immune response. We’re not using that type of vaccine this year on Vancouver Island.”
She said the goal for the influenza vaccine is different than for childhood immunizations for things like measles and polio, and the fact the influenza virus is constantly changing makes it far more difficult to target.
While it may not be perfect, Hoyano says the flu vaccine is the best method available to protect yourself and those around you from the flu.
“You need to think about your own situation and your own health status for making that decision about getting vaccinated, but also think about people around you who may not be as healthy or may not be able to deal with flu,” she said.