Influenza outbreak in B.C. approaching 10-year high

METRO VANCOUVER — A sharp increase in flu cases throughout the province could prove this to be B.C.’s worst season in close to a decade.

According to the most recent statistics provided by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (Dec. 14-27), there were 28 new influenza outbreaks across the province, including 25 in long-term care facilities and three in acute care.

That number is roughly double compared to the same year-to-date period for the 2012-13 flu season, which was also blamed on a vaccine mismatch.

Statistics indicate the flu represented 27 per cent of visits to the BC Children’s Hospital Emergency Room in the last week of December, while the proportion of patients testing positive for influenza at the BC provincial laboratory increased to 45 per cent in the final week.

Dr. Michelle Murti, medical health officer for Fraser Health for the Delta, White Rock and South Surrey municipalities and regional medical health officer for immunizations and communicable diseases, said the elderly have been hardest hit this season.

There are currently 14 active influenza outbreaks within Fraser Health facilities, exceeding the 10 outbreaks the authority experienced for the entire winter season last year.

"We’ve already had 11 that have been resolved from the beginning of October so we’re at 25 facilities that have had an outbreak and we’re only at the beginning of January now," she said.

Murti said physicians are seeing outbreaks of the H3N2 influenza virus both in the community and long-term care facilities, with particularly high rates in residential care homes.

Although Fraser Health enjoyed good participation rates for the flu vaccine this year, Murti said the H3N2 strain has "drifted" a little bit and so is not an exact match for the vaccine. However, she said that has reduced the impact of the illness and made the symptoms milder.

"We think there’s some cross-protection from the vaccine but not enough protection from the flu altogether and we are seeing more of these outbreaks happening."

Fraser Health has been monitoring and tracking flu levels based on visits to physicians, emergency rooms and laboratory results, with positive levels approaching a 10-year high.

Murti said there hasn’t been this number of outbreaks within long-term care facilities since 2007.

The H3N2 strain has been a common strain since the 1970s and as such is a fairly predictable part of the influenza cycle, explained Murti. She said the H1N1 or "swine flu" pandemic that gripped the world in 2009 was a "novel" strain because many people had not been exposed to it on an annual basis.

Ironically, the H1N1 virus had been experienced by many older people in their youth, offering them more cross-protection than children, who were harder hit.

To handle the outbreaks Fraser Health is still advocating regular preventative care such as getting immunized, washing hands and cleaning contaminated surfaces.

Murti said it’s about staying away from people who are ill, but also staying home if you’re exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

"This is a time when kids are going back to school, people are back from holidays, people want to go back. They might think they have to go back even when they are still ill and they don’t want to take any sick time.

"But it is important that if you do have respiratory symptoms that if you are still actively coughing and unwell that it is important to stay home so you’re not spreading that virus to other people."

amacnair@thenownewspaper.com

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