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Is the flu actually an epidemic? André Picard tackles your flu questions Add to ...

What is most unfortunate is that the vaccine is least effective in those who most need it – the frail elderly, young children and others without robust immune systems. “The flu vaccine is far from perfect but it’s still by far the best tool we have to prevent the flu,” Dr. Frieden said. But there is no question better flu vaccines are needed.

I’ve had the flu before so there’s no point getting a flu shot right? – Ashok, Burnaby, B.C.

Getting the flu and recovering will confer natural immunity – but only for that particular strain. So, if you contracted the widely circulating strain of the flu this year, A/Victoria (H3N2), there is probably not a lot of point getting a flu shot now. It should be noted however that, after the A type of the flu hits, there is usually another wave of B type flu that follows a few weeks later so you could, theoretically, get the flu again. And, next year, there will be new strains of the flu circulating so you will need a vaccine to protect you against those. You are unlikely to have much natural immunity.

I read online that the flu is now officially an epidemic. That sounds bad. What does it mean? – Marnie, Saskatoon

The term “epidemic” conjures up visions of horror and mass destruction. But here’s the official CDC definition: “The occurrence of more cases of disease than expected in a given area or among a specific group of people over a particular period of time.” The flu, for example, is considered to have reached epidemic levels when it accounts for more than 7.7 per cent of deaths in a given week. That threshold was crossed Friday in the U.S. At the same time, data suggests that the spread of the flu has peaked and it is beginning to wane.

Is the flu and its impact actually getting worse, or is there just a greater amount of media coverage this year? Laura, Scarborough, Ont.

Though terms like “Flumaggedon” are being tossed around and we are officially in an epidemic now, the reality is that this is a moderate flu season so far. There is no perfect tool for measuring the severity of a flu season but the best measure comes from the CDC, which tracks what percentage of people who see a healthcare provider do so because of an influenza-like illness (ILI). Over the past four weeks, that number has risen to 5.6 per cent from 2.8 per cent. Last year – a mild flu season – that figure peaked at 2.2 per cent. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the ILI hit 7.7 per cent. And back in 2004, the last time there was a severe flu season, the ILI peaked at 7.6 per cent.

In Canada, we simply don’t do a very good job of tracking the flu with hard numbers but, anecdotally, the consensus seems to be this is the worst ‘normal’ winter in memory (the 2009 pandemic being an exceptional circumstance) in hospitals. But this is due not to influenza alone, but to the simultaneous and early outbreaks of flu, norovirus and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children. So, to answer your question: Yes, the flu is getting a disproportionate amount of media attention this year, particularly with the echo chamber effect created by increasingly popular social media. But, overall, the impact of respiratory viruses is probably not getting adequate coverage.

Is there anything that can be done to shorten the flu's duration?Paul Tate, Milton, Ont.

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