Alberta’s top doctor warns parents about concerning, ‘severe’ flu season

Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health penned a letter to parents Wednesday, warning them about a flu season that could be “more severe than we have seen in years.”

Dr. Mark Joffe and Dr. Laura McDougall, senior medical officer of health, asked all school divisions in Alberta to distribute their Nov. 23 letter.

“In the last few weeks, we have seen a large rise in cough and fever type sickness in our schools,” it reads in part.

“We are concerned that this influenza season will be more severe than we have seen in years, and that illness will continue to disrupt school, sports and upcoming holiday gatherings.”

Read more: Young child among 6 Albertans who have died of influenza this season

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“The influenza season in Australia often predicts the type of season we will see in Canada. This year, Australia had a particularly severe respiratory virus season with influenza and COVID-19 rising at the same time. They saw the highest rates of influenza disease in children and teenagers, with children less than 16 years of age accounting for the majority of all influenza hospitalizations this year.”

The letter explained that most children recover from influenza, but some children can get very sick and need hospital treatment.

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Canada’s top doctor recommends kids be vaccinated ahead of flu season as medication shortage continues

Joffe and McDougall said this season’s flu vaccine offers protection against H3N2, the most common strain of influenza in Alberta right now.

“Influenza vaccines are safe, effective and offer the best defense from serious illness.”

In Alberta, the flu shot is recommended for all children six months and older. It’s free and appointments for kids under five can be booked by calling 811 or online. Kids five and older can get their shot at a pharmacy or participating doctor’s clinic.

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So far, 781,868 doses of influenza vaccine have been administered in Alberta, which means about 18 per cent of Albertans have been vaccinated.

Read more: 1st statement from Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health on RSV, flu season

The two senior health officials also encouraged using a well-fitting, high-quality mask, especially in crowded indoor settings.

“Wearing a mask can help reduce your risk of becoming sick and help protect others from being exposed. Individuals should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not,” the letter reads.

Last week, the latest Alberta Health influenza data showed there have been 2,082 lab-confirmed cases of influenza, with almost all of those being attributed to influenza A.

Of those flu cases, 355 have required hospitalization and 34 of those required treatment in intensive care units.

Influenza is being blamed for six deaths in Alberta so far this flu season, including a four-year-old child.

Alberta Health is set to release the latest flu numbers later on Thursday.

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In addition to the vaccine and masking, Joffe and McDougall offered other tips to prevent the flu:

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  • Stay home when feeling sick;
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick;
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
  • Cover your cough;
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands;
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items at home, especially when someone in your home is sick.

“Thank you for everything you do to keep your families and communities healthy,” the letter concluded.

Read more: Infectious diseases doctor urges Albertans be cautious when gathering for Thanksgiving

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist, was surprised by how early the season started.

She said that while Alberta and western Canada usually sees it start before the rest of Canada, it typically peaks closer to Christmas, even here.

“The thing I’m finding a little concerning is that it’s rocketing up extremely quickly, we don’t know when it’s going to slow down, and we’ve easily exceeded a peak that happened much later in previous years already. It’s ripping through the community aggressively,” she said.

“It hasn’t started turning around yet.”

Read more: Alberta education minister ‘not anticipating’ school mask mandate despite early, numerous student absences

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Saxinger is urging everyone to get their flu shot as soon as possible. She said early estimates show the vaccine offers “good protection,” which translates to about a 60 to 70 per cent chance of preventing serious illness.

“Imperfect protection still reduces severity,” she added.

With other illnesses — RSV and COVID — circulating, how can parents know when it’s time to seek help for their sick child?

“The thing to guide people would be how severely ill they are,” Saxinger said.

“If you’re starting to see a kid who’s not eating, drinking, or breathing normally, then yes, unfortunately — although I expect there’s a lot of congestion — that’s something you at least need to run by your provider, and then figure out if you have to go in to get a more formal assessment.

“Influenza is usually pretty tough for the first few days and then turns around, but you never want to wait too late because kids can get really ill.”

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