What Will the 2013 Flu Season Bring?

Before we get into this season’s flu trends, it’s worth learning a little bit about influenza.

What Is Influenza?

Influenza refers to illnesses and symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, caused by a number of different influenza viruses. Typical symptoms are fever, coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills and fatigue. Annual outbreaks of seasonal influenza usually occur during the late fall through early spring.

Have a look at our post: Seasonal Influenza, A Helpful Reminder to learn how to protect yourself influenza and what to do if you become sick.

2013 Flu Trends

2013 Flu Season

2013 flu season (dark blue) compared to the past six years.

By looking at data gathered by Google so far this year, we can see that 2013 is beginning to look like one of the worst flu seasons in recent years. Compared to the previous 6 years, this season is only overshadowed by the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. Unfortunately, it is still to early to determine if flu cases will continue to rise.

By using millions of data points, Google Flu Trends is able to determine (with a high-level of accuracy) how big of an impact the flu is having on a seasonal basis.

This data is important because it can show flu queries in real-time, often weeks ahead of reporting agencies.

Flu season

Comparing flu search results throughout Canada.

How does Google Flu Trends Work? (excerpt from Google)

Each week, millions of users around the world search for health information online. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer.

Flu trends

Google Flu Trends compared to Public Health Agency of Canada records.

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together. We compared our query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in different countries and regions around the world. 

 —

As you can see, Google Flu Trends is a very powerful tool that can predict the severity of the upcoming flu season with frightening accuracy. Given the intensity of the flu in 2013, it is as important as ever to get vaccinated. Learn more about vaccination here: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/im/vs-sv/vs-faq17-eng.php

Go explore Google Flu Trends yourself!

 
 
 

Update – BC Influenza Control Policy

Earlier in the year, health authorities throughout BC (on the advice of Dr. Perry Kendall, BC’s Provincial Health Officer) agreed to ramp up efforts to protect patients and seniors from influenza exposure this flu season (read the full story). Now, after a much heated debate, the government has temporarily backed away from the controversial plan to force thousands of provincial health workers to get a flu shot before they can work with patients. 

Original Influenza Policy:

Effective December 1, 2012, all staff, physicians, students, volunteers, contractors and vendors must either be immunized against the flu or wear a procedure mask while in patient care areas.

BC Influenza Policy

Updated BC Influenza Policy (Dec 5th):

The Ministry of Health decided that during the first year of flu policy implementation the focus will not be on enforcement. Health authorities will not be disciplining employees, but will focus on education and awareness to promote compliance with the new policy.

Unimmunized staff must still wear masks in patient care areas, and immunized staff must display the flu shot sticker on ID badges during flu season.

From our Medical Director Dr. Allan Holmes:

“The following Influenza Control Policy for the Health Authorities remains in effect. The only change is that the enforcement within the Health Authorities will not be a focus in the first year. I remain support of the policy as it is designed to maximize protection for our patients.”

Learn more about influenza:
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/flu-grippe-eng.php

Waging War Against Influenza in BC

Before the end of the year, residents of British Columbia can look forward to better protection  measures against the common ailment – influenza.

Influenza in BC

Health authorities throughout BC (on the advice of Dr. Perry Kendall, BC’s Provincial Health Officer) have agreed to ramp up efforts to protect patients and seniors from influenza exposure for the coming flu season.

The implementation plan calls for any health care workers who come into contact with patients at publicly-funded health care facilities to get the influenza vaccine, or wear a mask during the flu season.

“Influenza causes more deaths annually than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined, and hospitalized patients are more vulnerable to complications from influenza than the general population,” said Dr. Kendall.

“This policy will protect patients. Putting in place consistent policies to prevent influenza from spreading is the right thing to do from a patient safety perspective.”

Influenza Measures

Kendall said health authorities in B.C. have been trying to get immunization numbers to go up “for years,” but said despite the encouragement, levels have decreased since 2010.

Even with a recent push towards vaccinations, healthcare workers had a dismal 40% vaccination rate last year.

“This decision has been made by all health authorities, acting upon the advice of the Provincial Health Officer, and ensures we are reducing the risk to our patients to the best of our ability,” said Dr. Nigel Murray, president and CEO, Fraser Health.

The influenza vaccine is extremely safe, and is the most effective way to prevent illness from the influenza virus, helping to prevent infection in healthy adults by up to 80 per cent.

Influenza in BC

  • Influenza causes the most deaths among vaccine-preventable diseases
  • In addition to being a quality and safety issue, improved influenza vaccination coverage helps to reduce rates of employee illness
  • Flu shots are traditionally available around Thanksgiving each year.
  • Flu season typically runs from late November/early December through to the end of March. 
  • Studies have demonstrated that health care workers who are ill with influenza frequently continue to work. 
  • B.C. will be the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement this province-wide policy. 
  • People who may be at increased risk include: seniors, people with chronic health conditions (especially heart or lung conditions), aboriginal people, or those with compromised immune systems

Every fall, we set up immunizations for the entire staff at Iridia. We recommend immunizations for all low-risk groups, as is it the most effective ways to protect against influenza.

Learn more:
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/flu-grippe-eng.php

Avian Influenza (H5N1)

Influenza is in the news again as the flu season hits full stride. No, it is not the H1N1 strain that is garnering attention this year, rather the avian influenza (H5N1) strain, which is commonly called the bird flu.

Recently a man in China has died from the H5N1 flu, the first reported human death in 18 months. The death prompted the local government to cull thousands of birds to prevent the spread of the virus. At this time no other cases have been discovered.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jlKXAPXiSQ]

What is H5N1?

H5N1 is a particular strain of avian flu that can cause infection in humans, first discovered in Southern China in 1996. Over 300 humans in twelve different countries have died from the H5N1 bird flu.

The majority of H5N1 cases in humans have been due to the handling of infected birds. 60% of those who have been infected with H5N1 have died. The following people have an increased chance of contracting the avian flu:

  • Individuals who breed and handle poultry
  • Travellers visiting infected countries
  • Those who eat undercooked poultry

Spread

The virus usually spreads from farm to farm, and then from bird to bird, via air or bird droppings; the virus can also be carried on feet of rodents, spreading virus further.

From one country to another, virus is spread through international trade of poultry; migratory birds have also been known to spread virus, while wild ducks can pollute water supplies.

The virus can survive in cool temperatures in contaminated manure for 3 months; in water, up to four days at 22 degrees Celsius and 30 days at 0 degrees Celsius. This resilience allows ample time for the virus to affect other birds. Infected birds are then able to spread the virus from country to country through migratory patterns.

H5N1 avian influenza: Timeline of major events

Pandemic Potential

All influenza viruses have the potential to can change. It is possible that an avian influenza virus could change so that it could infect humans and could spread easily from person to person. Because these viruses do not commonly infect humans, there is little or no immune protection against them in the human population. If an avian virus were able to infect people and gain the ability to spread easily from person to person, an “influenza pandemic” could begin.

Symptoms

Infection of the H5N1 virus causes typical flu-like symptoms in humans such as:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Muscle aches
  • Eye infections
  • In several fatal cases, severe respiratory distress secondary to viral pneumonia

Prevention

The best way to minimize the spread is rapid destruction of all infected or exposed birds, which involves proper disposal of carcasses, rigorous quarantine and disinfection measures (virus is killed by heat, 60 degrees C for 30 minutes) and common disinfectants such as formalin and iodine compounds.

Currently there is no vaccination for H5N1. The best prevention on a personal level is to use protective gear when handling birds that may be infected, as well as avoiding live-bird markets in infected areas. It is also very important to avoid undercooked poultry and egg products.

For organizations worldwide it is a reminder to be prepared. As the H1N1 pandemic becomes a thing of the past, we need to be vigilant and ready for the next pandemic, which substantiated the H5N1 strain.

In order to protect yourself and your organization it is vital that you have in place a pandemic plan that covers the following areas:

  • Communication tools and protocols
  • Human resources policies
  • Vaccine and antiviral usage
  • Personal protective equipment strategies
  • Infection control measures

Outlook

In August 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned of a possible major resurgence of the H5N1 virus in the coming months, saying migratory birds appeared to be carrying it and infecting domestic poultry in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

While we have no way of knowing exactly when the next pandemic will take place, by having the right tools in place we can mitigate the potential risks.

While you can’t always foresee an emergency situation, you can always ensure you are prepared.

Seasonal Influenza, A Helpful Reminder

Seasonal Influenza

It’s that time of the year again, leaves are changing colour, days are getting shorter and our noses are getting runnier. There is not much we can do about the leaves or the days but we can protect ourselves and others from catching Seasonal Influenza.

What Is Influenza?

Influenza refers to illnesses and symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, caused by a number of different influenza viruses.  Typical symptoms are fever, coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills and fatigue.  Annual outbreaks of seasonal influenza usually occur during the late fall through early spring.

How to Protect Yourself and Others?

The best prevention for influenza is getting vaccinated.  An influenza vaccine not only provides protection for an individual, it also helps protect vulnerable populations that are at a higher risk of complications from influenza.

These “high risk” groups include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Children 5 years of age and younger
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes and immunocompromised persons

Receiving an influenza vaccine is particularly important if you work in a high-rick environment such as a hospital. As you can be infectious with the influenza virus for up to 24 hours before displaying symptoms, you could inadvertently spread influenza before you become sick with symptoms.   The seasonal influenza vaccine is extremely safe for everyone, including pregnant women and children.  Other ways to help protect yourself and others from getting influenza include:

  • Staying home from work if you have influenza-like symptoms
  • Regularly washing your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer
  • Coughing and sneezing into your sleeve or a tissue

What if I Get Sick With Influenza?  

If you have influenza-like symptoms you should:

  • Stay home, drink clear fluids
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Avoid close contact with others

If you have significant influenza symptoms or are in one of the high risk groups (see above), you should see your health care provider, preferably within the first 48 hours, to see if you are eligible for antiviral medications.  If you are taking care of someone at home who has influenza remember to protect yourself and others in the household.

What Is Pandemic Influenza Again?

Pandemic influenza refers to a novel influenza A virus for which there is little or no immunity in the human population.  Because it is a novel virus, it takes approximately 6 months to develop an effective vaccine.  A pandemic influenza virus can cause serious illness and spreads easily from person-to-person worldwide.  The most recent example of a pandemic influenza was in 2009, caused by the novel H1N1 (swine) virus.

Further Information  More information on this year’s seasonal influenza may also be found at:
http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/influenza/index-eng.php