The worst of Canada’s flu season may be over, according to new national figures.
The weekly flu report published Friday by the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that from Dec. 30 to Jan. 5, lab-confirmed influenza cases are down from the week prior, suggesting the flu season may have reached its peak during the last week of December. But the report warns that the number of flu cases across the country remain high.
Public health officials are paying extra attention to how influenza is affecting children this year because of the resurgence of H1N1, a strain of influenza A that hits young people particularly hard and is best-known as the culprit behind the 2009-10 flu pandemic.
At least six children under the age of 10 died after falling ill with the flu so far this season, according to the federal report, which uses information from 12 pediatric hospitals across Canada. It also showed 95 children have been admitted to intensive care units as a result of the virus, most under the age of 10. Nearly all of the pediatric illnesses are linked to H1N1.
Three preschoolers have died in Saskatchewan as a result of the flu so far this season, according to the provincial health ministry. It’s unclear if the three deaths are included in the six pediatric deaths reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
It’s hard to gauge how lethal the flu season has been for children across the country because Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia don’t track influenza-related deaths in real time.
Smaller provinces do keep count, although official numbers typically only capture a subset of flu cases. Most people who become sick with the virus are never tested.
So far this season, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have each recorded one death in which the patient had a lab-confirmed case of the flu. New Brunswick is aware of four such cases, Manitoba has logged five and Alberta has recorded 17. None of those deaths have been children.
Laurentiu Givelichian, the head of pediatrics for the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said that in his province the flu isn’t just affecting more kids than usual – it’s making them sicker, too.
“There is an increase in the severity of the disease,” Dr. Givelichian said.
Normally, he would advise parents of children with run-of-the-mill flu symptoms to treat them at home with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications to control fever. This year – in Saskatchewan at least – he said children with flu symptoms should see a health professional right away.
“We cannot take the risk any more,” he said. “I know that will be a little bit overwhelming for the health-care providers anywhere in the country, but unfortunately this year because of the different type of disease and the severity of the disease, I think that a child should be seen sooner rather than later.”
Dr. Givelichian said two of the three preschoolers who succumbed to influenza in his province died in the pediatric intensive-care unit of the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, while a third died before the child could be airlifted to the same hospital.
Dr. Givelichian said another six children in the province have been treated for influenza in intensive-care units. None of them had been vaccinated, he said.
In New Brunswick, where no children have died with a lab-confirmed diagnosis of influenza, the virus still seems to be targeting a younger demographic than in the last few seasons.
“This year the flu is affecting young to middle-aged people with chronic diseases,” said Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health. Of the 156 patients who have been admitted to hospital in the province this season – 27 of them to the intensive-care unit – a “large proportion,” have not been immunized, she added.
“People get lulled into the idea that [influenza] is not as serious as it can be, especially for those most vulnerable,” Dr. Russell said.
She and other public-health experts urged Canadians who have not yet been vaccinated to get the shot as soon as possible.