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Editorial: With COVID still a threat, don't forget your flu shot

While the flu season is almost upon us, it has been underway for some months in the southern hemisphere. And the case counts so far are remarkable.
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A needle and syringe used to administer the flu shot in shown in Virgil, Ont., Monday, October 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tara Walton

While the flu season is almost upon us, it has been underway for some months in the southern hemisphere. And the case counts so far are remarkable.

Although these are the winter months in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, very few instances of flu are being reported.

This matches the experience across the globe during 2020, when flu levels hit record lows. Last year, only four cases were reported in Canada during the first week of November. During the same week in 2019, 147 cases had been confirmed.

It’s believed the social distancing and mask-wearing measures adopted to combat the COVID-19 epidemic are mainly responsible.

However, this huge drop-off in flu numbers, while welcome, also poses some challenges. With so few cases to work with, vaccine manufacturers are unsure exactly which strains of the virus they’ll be facing.

To date, two older strains have been identified in the few patients who’ve fallen ill, and it appears two new ones might also be present. For that reason, while flu vaccines are usually developed to combat either two or three strains, the vaccines this year will be ­quadrivalent — designed to give protection against four strains.

There is also some uncertainty as to whether, with very few instances of the disease last year, our immunity might have suffered. Might we be more vulnerable than usual, through loss of contact with the virus? Public health experts simply do not know.

Neither is it clear, again because of its relative rarity, whether this year’s strain will be more or less virulent.

What can be said with certainty is that it’s essential everyone get vaccinated when flu shots become available. With COVID almost certain to persist into the winter months, anyone who doesn’t get vaccinated is asking for trouble. A double dose of COVID and flu could be lethal.

Island Health has said flu shots will begin around the middle of the month. Public health clinics will offer the vaccine, as will pharmacies who’ve signed on to deliver shots, and also some family physician offices.

The vaccine will be available to anyone ages six months and older, usually through an injection, but also as a nasal spray for patients ages two to 17, though this might be in limited ­supply. Pharmacies will only treat patients ages two and over.

Anyone wishing to book an appointment should contact their nearest public health clinic or pharmacy. The Immunize B.C. website provides a wide range of information on where to find a clinic, how to sign up, and who is eligible for a free shot.

No doubt some of the same reluctance to get vaccinated we’ve seen during the COVID outbreak will resurface when the flu vaccine becomes available.

What anyone must remember who refuses a flu shot for reasons of personal choice, is that it’s not just about you.

Yes, strictly speaking, you have that right. No one can force a vaccine on you, and no one is proposing to do so.

But as with any infectious disorder, the flu virus needs victims to perpetuate itself. Beyond question, some among us have died of COVID-19 because others refused ­preventive measures, and helped spread the disease.

And sadly, as with COVID, those who die of flu are likely to be vulnerable elderly folks and residents of long-term care facilities. Surely we owe them every form of help we can offer, personal reservations about ­vaccination notwithstanding.

The message, then, is clear. With COVID still a real threat, and hospital ICUs overflowing, we cannot allow a second epidemic to fall upon us at the same time.

Every one of us has a public duty to get a flu shot, as soon as the vaccine becomes ­available.