With flu season walloping us once again, the annual bout of related controversies are also making the rounds.
It started last summer, with problems at Canada’s main flu-vaccine production facility in Quebec. A shortfall of vaccine doses resulted, forcing Canada’s Public Health Agency to place orders with other suppliers.
By mid-autumn, it became known that this year’s flu vaccine missed the virus bull’s-eye. The World Health Organization decides each spring which strains of influenza to target in the year’s vaccine. It selected one strain of Influenza B and two strains of Influenza A in 2014.
However, the A virus that has since come to dominate the season mutated, leaving the vaccine less effective.
Vaccination rates at the end of October indicated compliance among Island Health staff had increased to more than 70 per cent, up 16 per cent over last year.
Yet in December, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority reported only 62 per cent of health-care workers there had received this season’s flu vaccine, down from 82 per cent last year. News of the vaccine-virus mismatch likely contributed to the lack of Lower Mainland uptake.
We’ve seen the effects of the vaccine–virus mismatch in increased incidents of influenza across Canada compared to last year’s numbers. The December holidays helped spread the germ, as folk travelled and gathered for festivities. Several acute and long-term care facilities in the region restricted visitor access to protect vulnerable patients.
Reports this month indicate that this year’s vaccine provides only about 25 per cent protection from the dominant viruses causing flu in the U.S., and almost no protection against the strains in Canada.
However, it might offer some protection next year. One study has shown that flu vaccines from the year before provide some residual immune protection against flu viruses the following year.
The amount of lingering protection depends on the viruses originally targeted, what the virus-of-the-year is, and, again, how much viral mutation has occurred since.
For those who wish to take further steps to avoid getting influenza this year, a few other studies confirm common sense — and provide surprising direction:
• Avoid touching and frequently disinfect commonly handled surfaces. Researchers in the U.S. planted a harmless, uncommon virus on doorknobs and tabletops in a health-care facility, an office and a conference room.
Swabs taken by the researchers a few hours later showed that more than half of the employees at the facilities had the virus on their hands, and had spread it throughout the buildings. Light switches, phones and computers were common infected surfaces, and coffee rooms served as secondary epicentres for further spread.
In another study, researchers had the joy of collecting mucus from 15 people who suffered from the common cold. Each participant then spent a night sniffling, sneezing and snoozing in a hotel room on the scientists’ tab. The next day, after participants had left, the researchers sampled the room’s surfaces.
In each room, they found cold viruses on more than one-third of the surfaces, including lights and switches, bathroom taps and television remote controls.
The virus genetically matched that of the study participant who had stayed in the room. If a cold virus can survive on a television remote control, so can a flu virus.
• Wash your hands. For example, the office-infection study described above found that disinfecting hands with alcohol- or ammonia-based wipes reduced the presence of viruses in the work place by 80 per cent.
• Take public transit. An online survey of 6,000 commuters in the U.K. showed that sharing enclosed spaces with strangers twice a day decreases a person’s chances of getting the flu.
People who didn’t take public transit reported a slightly higher rate of infection. The lower flu rates among commuters might be, in part, because their exposure to more people — and more germs — strengthens their immune systems.
• Exercise regularly. The U.K. Flusurvey mentioned above has also found that people who exercise vigorously for at least 2.5 hours each week reduce their chances of experiencing flu-like illnesses by about 10 per cent.