It's March 10, 2019. I was reviewing the surveillance report for influenza activity in Newfoundland and Labrador, when I realized something glaring - we're not out of the woods yet when it comes to influenza season.
This flu season, which we denote by the overlap of years as 2018-2019, we are seeing a resurgence of the dreaded H1N1. This may sound a little dark, but I love the years when we see H1N1. Not because of the absolutely horrific impact it has on the population and individuals, but because it is always the years when flu shot uptake rates are at its highest.
Would you like to know why? In 2004, Canada, and in particular Toronto, was hit with a terrifying respiratory outbreak that spread like wildfire and killed many previously young and healthy individuals. SARS was so well covered in the media and so alarming, and with good cause. Health care workers were being mandated to work, triage and isolation tents were at the doors of every hospital, and people were dying. Young, healthy people.
Jump to 2009. This was the first year I remember hearing so much emphasis on flu shots. H1N1 was described as similar to SARS and the country, actually the entire planet, was urged vehemently by health authorities to get the flu shot. I remember distinctly, because it was the year my son was born. I had been a nurse for 4 years at that point, and this was the first time I sought out the flu shot. I had myself and my son vaccinated as soon as possible. At the end of the 2009-2010 flu season, the conversation became "what was all the fuss about? There never was an outbreak". Would you like to know why there was no outbreak. Because everyone got their freaking flu shots.
So, moving into this flu season 2018-2019, early on the predictors were that H1N1 would again be the predominate circulating virus for the season.
The above figure, available from the Department of Health website, outlines a 5 year average of when the province has had the highest number of influenza cases. The graph highlights that, historically, we continue to see high numbers of laboratory confirmed influenza until at least week 13 (which this year will be up to and including March 30th).
But, when you examine this year's numbers, weeks 7 and 8 are clearly much lower than in the previous 5 years. Not to sound like a broken record, but would you like to know why? It takes the flu shot two full weeks to reach it's peak effectiveness in your body. On January 16th, Dr. Claudia Sarbu, the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Newfoundland and Labrador, appeared on CBC with a stern warning that H1N1 was circulating, and young healthy people, including children, were getting very ill and even dying. On February 5th, Eastern Health announced two additional flu shot clinics free of charge for the public. Again, public education has been very effective in increasing the number of people who obtain the flu shot.
Take on last look at that chart. Week 8 was still a significant increase from the previous week. Essentially, week 7 is a bit of an outlier. Although it can be explained logically as I have presented here, many individuals will still use this apparent drop in flu cases as an excuse to not get the flu shot. But to you folks I say look again at this graph. We are about three weeks out from another surge in the number of diagnosed cases in this province. Eight people of varying ages have died so far. 27 required ICU admission (which is no joke. The complications from influenza and the medications used to treat those complications can lead to amputations, blindness, kidney failure and dialysis, and on and on).
This week, week 11 (March 10-16, 2019) make the plan to get a flu shot. If you do, by the time weeks 12 and 13 roll around, your body will be able to help protect you from catching H1N1. And if you DO get the shot and you DO get the flu (not a cold, the flu), then having had the flu shot will help you recover faster.
So yeah, I know it's March, the days are getting longer again, we just "sprang" forward on daylight savings time, we're getting close to spring. But influenza is not finished with us yet. So really, get the flu shot for you, your family, and your employees. It really could be the difference between life and death.