An elderly woman was found dead and three people sick with flu-like illness were taken off a Vancouver-Toronto train in Parry Sound, Ont., on Dec. 29. This incident demonstrates how serious infections like influenza can be.
Before the holidays, we heard flu season started early this year. And with people travelling for the holidays, officials warned the virus might spread as people met over turkey and under mistletoe.
After all, SARS went global in 2002–2003, and bird flu in 2009, by piggybacking on travellers.
Balance those effects with two other factors to influence influenza spread in B.C. this year.
The province’s health-care-worker flu-control policy went into effect Dec. 1, although it is not being enforced for the time being. Under the regulations, people working in health-care facilities in B.C. must get annual flu shots or wear masks when working around patients during flu season. The requirements will help limit spread of flu between workers and vulnerable patients, including the elderly.
And, for the last two weeks, the greatest incubators of flu virus were closed. From Dec. 20 until after New Year’s, little opportunity existed for children to exchange germs at school.
Children catch flu easily. They also pass the illness on to others more than any other age group. They are the primary drivers of flu epidemics.
Young immune systems lack the antibody resources of us seasoned veterans of multitudinous flu seasons.
Flu spreads like wildfire in daycares and classrooms. Kids bring the virus home, and share it with their families. These new carriers go to school or work, and pass the microbes on to classmates and workmates, who take it home.
Controlling flu among kids is key to limiting flu-outbreak severity and duration. Numerous studies show that when children showing symptoms of colds or flu are kept at home until healthy, the entire community remains healthier.
Evidence from epidemics around the world also shows that early and prolonged closure of schools reduces the number of flu cases occurring at outbreak peaks.
Of course, enforcing this would be a nightmare. Mandated closures would happen only during epidemics. During normal flu seasons, parents and teachers would have to monitor children’s health. And, even now, when a child stays home sick, parents have to find child care on short notice, or take time off work to attend to the youngster.
Few employers offer paid time off to look after family. So, unless the parent is also ill and can use paid sick time, he or she has to use those few, treasured, carefully banked days of paid vacation. Goodbye, family vacation.
And, in some cases, taking time off work isn’t possible. Goodbye, job.
An easier and more effective solution would be to immunize children at schools and daycare facilities every year. Or, better yet, provide free flu vaccine to all residents, as was done here during the bird-flu pandemic in 2009–2010, and has been done in Ontario since 2000.
Ontario offers free flu vaccine to all residents six months of age and older. About 42 out of every 100 Ontarians get immunized, more than the 28 per cent in other provinces with their sick- and elderly-only immunization programs.
Although the immunization covers only the expected flu strains, Ontario’s program results in far fewer cases of flu each season, fewer flu-related hospitalizations, emergency and doctor visits, and flu-related deaths. The reductions mean Ontario’s government saves on medical costs. Individuals and businesses also see fewer flu-related losses in wages and productivity.
As with all immunization programs, the more widespread the immunization, the more effectively it controls outbreaks.
This year’s flu season is off to an early start. It is predicted to be both severe and prolonged. As we lie shivering under the blankets, with tissues and analgesics at hand, it may be time to consider investing in community-wide flu protection for future years.
Then B.C., too, could reap the resulting cost savings.
And we could skip the worst of the runny-nose, wheezy-chest, aching-joint and pounding-head symptoms we picked up over the holidays.