The fear Jacqueline Zweng felt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year was nothing compared to the time her six-month-old daughter almost died of a cold-like virus.
On Wednesday, Zweng spoke at the unveiling of the province’s influenza vaccine program about the deadly implications of spreading a flu virus to an immune-compromised person like her or her daughter.
Getting a flu vaccine is not just a personal thing, it protects other people, she said.
This year’s flu is expected to be particularly nasty. About six seniors in B.C. residential care homes fell ill before the start of the season, which usually runs November through April, said B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake.
Zweng said her daughter, Hailey Zweng-Spivey, now seven, was born 10 weeks premature and weighed just over two pounds.
Hailey left hospital healthy at four pounds, only to be near death when she was six months old due to respiratory syncytial virus. RSV, as it’s known, feels like and spreads like a cold.
In a hospital waiting room, her daughter stopped breathing.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t already in the hospital,” she said. “It was very scary. I remember the moment exactly.”
She had tried to do everything to protect her baby, but it was “an invisible thing that almost killed my daughter.”
Almost a year ago, Zweng, 38, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having undergone chemotherapy, radiation and now hormone therapy, her white blood cell count has dipped several times.
“A flu could have been life threatening for me, as well.
“I can personally attest to the importance of doing everything you can to protect your family,” said Zweng. “It’s so important people consider everyone, and not just themselves.”
The flu causes more deaths than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined, said provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall. “The flu can be a serious disease and is highly contagious.” It can be contagious 24 hours before symptoms are apparent.
The vaccine is expected to be available throughout B.C. by early November at public health clinics, physicians’ offices, travel clinics and pharmacies. After the vaccine is administered, it can take up to two weeks for it to be fully effective.
The mix of the influenza vaccine this year is:
• A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus
• A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus
• B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus
• B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (in quadrivalent vaccines only; recommended for children)
The H3N2 virus hits seniors harder, and it is a concern that outbreaks have already begun in care homes, Kendall said.
There have been no lab-confirmed reports of the flu yet on Vancouver Island, said Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical officer of Island Health.
Hospitalized patients and seniors in residential care are more vulnerable to influenza than healthy adults.
“Fortunately, the H3N2 that’s circulating at the moment is a good match for the H3N2 in the vaccine,” Kendall said. “So, hopefully, we’re not going to see what we saw the year before last when there was a poor match.”
A flu shot costs between $20 and $30 but is free in B.C. to people at risk from complications, and to their close contacts.
A nasal-spray flu vaccine is free at public health clinics and physicians’ offices for children from two to 17 years of age who are at risk of serious illness from influenza or who live with someone who is at risk.
Each year, about 3,500 Canadians die from influenza and its complications across Canada, says the B.C. Health Ministry.
For five years, the province has required health workers to be immunized, for free, by Dec. 1, or wear a mask in patient-care areas.
Geraldine Vance, CEO of the B.C. Pharmacy Association, said 95 per cent of pharmacies in B.C. have pharmacists who are authorized to give immunizations. To find the nearest flu shot clinic, call HealthLink B.C. at 811 or visit the “influenza clinic finder” at immunizebc.ca/clinics/flu#8/49.246/123.116