A child at home. A co-worker. A friend. You hear them continually coughing, sniffling and wheezing. Chances are that if you don’t have the flu, you know someone who does and you are in danger of contracting the virus whenever you’re exposed to someone showing flu-like symptoms.
Influenza, more commonly called the flu, is nothing to sneeze at, since it kills between 2,000 and 8,000 Canadians each year. And incidents across Canada are reported to be on the rise. The recently passed holiday season was particularly associated with the latest outbreak, as families and people from far and wide gathered together to celebrate.
Health officials across the land are warning that a particular nasty strain of the flu virus is now in our midst. The influenza A virus H3N2 is the predominant strain plaguing Canadians. When patients showing flu-like symptoms have been tested, it has been found in 92 per cent of cases (World Health Organization report).
It turns out Google, the monster search engine, has become a useful tool for doctors and researchers who track flu outbreaks. Google Flu Trends (www.google.org/flutrends/ca/#CA) initially warned about the prevasive presence of the virus. It seems that before visiting a hospital emergency room or a clinic, Internet users with the sniffles google “flu,” and then Google publishes daily charts and colour-coded maps rating flu activity from minimal (green) to intense (red). As of January 9, the colour code rated Manitoba at “high.” The only province or territory showing an intense red colour code was Québec.
“Google Flu gives me a picture of the whole of North America at once,” Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told Globe and Mail writer Les Perreaux in an interview for an article published January 6. “It’s in real time and it’s very useful. Outbreaks come in waves, which make them somewhat predictable, once you know they’re happening. Google Flu has shown to be pretty effective.”
According to Perreaux’s article, researchers have found Google Flu Trends data match results reported by the U.S. centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jeffrey Shaman, a specialist in infectious disease monitoring at Columbia University, “recently published research that found the peak of flu season could be predicted six weeks in advance using models similar to those used for weather forecasting that combine math, known flu transmission trends and Google data.”
Shaman concedes that weather forecasts aren’t always on the mark, but said there are some risks with the system, such as a person making a self-diagnosis that they have the flu, when they really just have the common cold or some stomach bug.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that flu virus activity has been spreading in many Northern Hemisphere countries, including North America, Europe, North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and temperate Asia. In northern China, WHO reported on January 7 that flu cases had increased for five straight weeks.
The good news is that in a statement,WHO said all the Northern Hemisphere flu isolates that have been tested for antiviral resistance have remained susceptible to oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). The bad news is that the Canadian government has had to address a “potential temporary shortage” of the antiviral drug Tamiflu. In a press release, the Public Health Agency of canada and Health Canada were on January 9 arranging to release a supply of the drug Tamiflu from the agency’s National Emergency Stockpile System to the manufacturer Roche Canada for distribution to where it is needed across Canada.
“This exceptional action will be taken to ensure Tamiflu remains available to those Canadians who need it until the manufacturer replenishes its supply with a new shipment expected in February,” according to the press release.
Tamiflu is an antiviral medication that is primarily used for the early treatment of individuals infected with the influenza virus — particularly those at high risk of complications due to influenza, such as the elderly, young children, individuals with other medical conditions or pregnant women.
The agency said Tamiflu can also be prescribed to help reduce the chance of getting the flu following close contact with an infected individual, and Tamiflu should not be confused with the seasonal influenza vaccine (flu shot), which remains the best protection against the influenza virus.
The Public Health Agency of Canada reported an early spike in flu cases and more severe illness caused by the flu than has been experienced in the last two years. It also said the flu shot matches the flu strains now in circulation, “and therefore offers excellent protection from the virus. Canadians are reminded to get the flu shot to protect themselves and their loved ones. It is not too late to get the flu shot.”
It may not be too late to get the flu shot, but don’t expect immediate protection, as it takes time to build up an individual’s antibodies against the virus. Doctors say it takes up to a few weeks to mount a peak antibody response. But even within a week of immunization, antibodies do build up.
When I received my flu shot about two months ago, I was told that it would take al least two weeks before antibodies would built up to a level to protect me from the virus. Fortunately, the flu shot I received included protection against the H3N2 strain of the virus. I can report that I have caught a common cold, but I have not caught the flu, despite being in close contact with many people carrying the nasty virus.
For those who refuse to get a flu shot (it’s free in Manitoba) — reasons vary from not liking the needle to believing the shot makes individuals more sick than contracting the virus — frequent hand washing is always recommended. Those individuals who became sick immediately after receiving a flu shot may have already had the virus in their system or got the virus before sufficient antibodies were built up.
The government press release also advised that hands be washed using soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren’t available, then use a hand sanitizer.
People should never cough into their hands, but use an arm. If a tissue is used, dispose of it immediately and then wash your hands. Common surface areas, such as doorknobs, switches, telephones and computer keyboards, should be constantly disinfected.
The most prominent recommendation from health-care officials is that if you have the flu, stay home — don’t come to work, school or socialize.
For most people, flu illness passes within seven or 10 days, but there will always be those who aren’t as fortunate, which is why prevention is the best medicine.