A shift in demographics means hospitals are seeing more than double the number of patients with the flu this winter.
“It’s a serious but not abnormal flu season. The number of flu hospitalizations can vary from year to year,” said Sarah Plank, media manager for Island Health.
There’s been a steep increase in the last few weeks of influenza, commonly called the flu, an infection of the upper airway caused by an influenza virus. There were 217 patients hospitalized for the flu across Island Health between Sept. 1 and Jan. 11, compared to 66 over the same period last year. Thirty of those were in Royal Jubilee Hospital.
“The flu peak didn’t hit until January last year,” Plank explained. “We’re a couple weeks ahead of the peak this year.”
The median age of those requiring hospital treatment this season is 84 so it’s affecting an older demographic this year as opposed to last winter where the median age was 61.
“This year the type of virus it is affects the elderly mostly, last year it was affecting middle-age people,” Plank said.
The spike in numbers could also be attributed to the shift in ages, says Dr. Dee Hoyano, Island Health medical health officer.
“One of the reasons for that is the particular strain we’re seeing this year. It is affecting seniors and they are the ones who tend to need health care the most,” Hoyano said. While school age kids would stay home from school, they might not be counted in the medical system as they rarely require treatment.
Hoyano said the severity of illnesses do not appear to be any worse than usual with the current predominant strain, Influenza A(H3N2).
“We’re not saying it’s more serious or causing more complications than what’s typical for this strain. But it does cause hospitalizations,” she said. “This is our first [peak, which] typically is an Influence A strain … sometimes we’ll see a second peak closer into the spring and that’s often a different strain.”
You can reduce the risk of getting influenza or spreading it to others by washing your hands regularly; promptly disposing of used tissues in the waste basket or garbage; coughing and sneezing into your shirt sleeve rather than your hands; staying home when you are ill; and getting a vaccine.
“At this point – because it does take several days to several weeks to get the full body response to a vaccine – and right now hitting the most activity, the other things people can do are probably going to be as useful or more useful than running out and getting a flu shot,” Hoyano said. “Hopefully people have got their shot already and are just being really careful right now with hand washing and staying home when they’re sick.”
The vaccine isn’t as close of a match to what’s in the vaccine as they would hope, but the flu shot is still beneficial, because there are still similarities between the virus and the vaccine, said Hoyano. Right now, hand washing is critical.
“People just don’t do it often enough or thoroughly enough,” she said. “Especially with this year seeing as we know the vaccine isn’t as great of a match as we’d like.”
Flu symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, runny nose, sore throat, extreme tiredness and cough. Children may also experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Although infections from other viruses may have similar symptoms, those due to the influenza virus tend to be worse.
Getting the flu increases risk of other infections including viral or bacterial pneumonia which affect the lungs. The risk of complications, which can be life-threatening, is greater for seniors 65 years and older, very young children and people who have lung or heart diseases, certain chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems.
“If you’re in one of those high-risk groups [and have symptoms of flu] it’s probably worth it to phone your doctor… and obviously if you have complications like difficulty breathing or being ill for a number of days and not improving,” Hoyano said, adding people can also use the HealthLink health information phone line by dialling 8-1-1. “They can help you decide if you should go into a clinic. It’s available 24 hours and it’s free and you can talk directly to an nurse.”
Those heading out to visit friends and relatives at group or institutional residences should call ahead as social activities and visitor restrictions may be in place.
“We are having a lot of outbreaks right now in seniors homes,” Hoyano said. “If people are wanting to visit family or friends they should call in and check to see if there are any precautions they want visitors to take.”