Doctors in British Columbia warn that the province could experience a nasty flu season this year after the influenza virus virtually disappeared last season.
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Center for Infectious Diseases, said he is watching this year closely for several reasons.
The biggest factor, he said, is the difference between the current, relaxed COVID-19 protocols and the COVID-19 restrictions that were in effect last winter, such as a ban on social gatherings and travel restrictions.
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“The flu is transmitted in a similar way to COVID, and since we have all these public health measures in place to prevent the transmission of COVID, they were even more effective in preventing the transmission of influenza,” he said.
“It can put into people’s minds the idea that the flu is gone since there was none last year and nothing could be further from the truth.”
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Conway said she was also concerned that because there was no major flu season last year, people likely don’t have the same level of antibodies to flu that they would have developed if the virus were circulating.
The possibility of people contracting COVID and the flu at the same time, a situation that doctors have little experience or evidence to respond to, is also a concern, he added.
Over the course of the 2020-2021 flu season, the BC Center for Disease Control says Influenza surveillance conducted more than 90,000 tests and returned only 18 positive results.
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In comparison, in 2019-2020 a similar number of tests detected more than 6,600 positive results. The five-year average from 2015 to 2019 was 5,605 positive detections through influenza surveillance.
So far no flu cases have been diagnosed in the 2021-2022 season, but UBC professor and pediatrician Dr. Ran Goldman says he anticipates a significant jump from last year.
“With more activity in the community, I am very concerned that we may see a stronger effect from the flu and other viruses spreading in the community,” he said.
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As the Delta variant continues to drive large numbers of COVID-19 cases, predominantly among the unvaccinated, Goldman urged people to get a flu shot to avoid a possible “twin disease.”
“Flu, many times, is a much more serious illness in young children,” Goldman said.
“So it’s really important to do everything possible to protect our children with what we have, and there is a flu vaccine available.”
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It’s a message Conway echoed, as the COVID-19 vaccine allows the majority of British Columbia residents to return to a semblance of normal life.
The province’s vaccine passport implementation has seen a return to indoor sports, concerts and movies, and restrictions on personal gatherings have been removed.
“Vaccination against COVID does not protect you against influenza,” Conway warned, encouraging the public to take advantage of both vaccines.
“Last year, we were operating at about 40 percent more or less than normal in terms of close interpersonal contacts; now we are close to 80 percent and some people are back at 100 percent.”
BC CDC is expected to provide more information on the availability of the flu vaccine in October.
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