Health officials battle early arrival of flu

Reports of illness came earlier than usual this season.

Health and fitness goals are often at the forefront of people’s minds once the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. However, January is still flu season, and for those suffering in bed with a runny nose and a fever, getting started on an exercise routine becomes less and less enticing.

This year’s flu season came earlier than usual, said Island Health medical health officer Dr. Dee Hoyano.

From the beginning of December we’ve had increased reports of illness,” said Hoyano. “We usually tend to see flu activity picking up closer to the end of the year and then into January.”

She added there were also flu outbreaks in some long-term care facilities even earlier than December.

It’s unusual, because we don’t usually see them that early.”

Hoyano said it is difficult to say why cases of the flu come earlier some years compared to others.

It’s a bit of a moving target about when flu arrives.”

Despite an earlier flu season, Hoyano said the severity of illnesses do not appear to be any worse than usual.

So far, the predominant strain is Influenza A(H3N2). However, that could change later on in the season.

Hoyano said it is still worth it now to get a flu shot, even though the available shot is not a perfect match for the current influenza strain.

There certainly have been some concerns about what’s called a drift of the strain that’s in the vaccine this year,” said Hoyano. “That means basically there’s been some changes in the genetic makeup of the virus that’s out there right now. It’s not as close of a match to what’s in the vaccine as we would like to see.”

The flu shot is still beneficial, because there are still similarities between the virus and the vaccine, said Hoyano.

You get some cross protection from the vaccine. It’s not a completely different virus than what’s in the vaccine strain.

As of Dec. 19, Island Health distributed 234,500 vaccines to pharmacies, doctors’ offices and public health units on Vancouver Island, said Sarah Plank, media manager for Island Health.

Last year, Island Health distributed 217,000 vaccines by the end of 2013.

More than 16,000 adults had been immunized at public health clinics as of Dec. 19, compared to 22,000 people at the same time last year. Currently, the Island Health staff vaccination rate is at 70 per cent.

Besides getting a flu shot, there are other basic measures to take to avoid getting sick this season.

Hand-washing is a really important one and obviously staying home when you’re sick to not pass it on to others,” said Hoyano.

Colder weather often means spending more time indoors in closer contact with others, which creates a risk for getting sick, she said.