Vaccine available for the virus headed our way

Nov 14, 2018

By George Le Masurier

Vancouver Island health care professionals are warning about a serious virus headed our way. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine.

 

Vancouver Island health care professionals are warning about a serious virus predicted to hit the Comox Valley in just a few weeks. The disease will hospitalize many and in some cases threaten the lives of those most vulnerable.

Fortunately, the Comox Valley Public Health Unit has a vaccine that can protect against the disease, and prevent its spread throughout the community.

It’s called the ‘flu shot.

North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns said her offices started distributing the vaccine in October to Comox Valley medical offices and pharmacies, where most people get their annual vaccinations. And more people are getting them this year, probably due to a particularly bad epidemic last year.

Enns said the health unit had distributed more doses in the North Island by the end of last week — 35,000 — than it had last year in total. That mirrors Island-wide figures: 218,000 doses distributed so far this year, compared with a total of 225,000 during the 2017-2018 season.

But even this year’s upward trend in vaccinations isn’t enough, Enns told Decafnation. Only about 29 percent of the total Island population was vaccinated last year.

“The higher the vaccination percentage, the less likely the virus will spread,” Enns said. “We call it herd immunity. The vaccine protects those most at risk, and lessens the chance in others of transmitting it.”

The concept of herd immunity is how the world has eradicated major killer diseases. Vaccines have eliminated smallpox, which killed more than 500 million people, and has nearly vanquished polio. When more people get immunized, the risk factor diminishes for everyone. And that reduces the cost to the public health health care system.


The purpose of providing ‘flu vaccine is to reduce the likelihood of severe complications and death from influenza


 

Enns said those most at risk at the elderly and the very young. About 3,500 Canadians died last year, including several on Vancouver Island, from complications caused by influenza, such as heart attacks and pneumonia.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that the risk of heart attacks jumped by 600 percent within the first days of an influenza infection.

Enns said public health can only estimate the number of deaths and hospitalizations caused by influenza, because it isn’t the disease itself that kills. The virus causes inflammation in the body, so the arteries in someone with heart disease close up more and trigger a heart attack or stroke.

The danger is similar for people with chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma, or with kidney issues.

The University of Toronto study, which examined 20,000 patients with confirmed influenza, also found that the ‘flu shot reduced the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 20 percent, and infected people were less likely to be hospitalized.

About 538 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases of influenza on Vancouver island last year. But the number is probably many times higher because infected people don’t often get formally diagnosed.

Because the influenza virus mutates frequently, the Canadian Centre for Disease Control produces a new vaccine every year based on estimates of those mutations. As a result, the vaccine is usually between 60 percent and 70 percent effective.

“But it’s a good as we’ve got,” Enns said. “People who’ve had the ‘flu shot won’t get as sick and especially the most vulnerable. The purpose of providing ‘flu vaccine is to reduce the likelihood of severe complications and death from influenza.”

Some of the most vulnerable are frail seniors resident on long-term care facilities, due to their age and the probability of having health issues.

Enns said that makes it more important for those who care for them and visit them to get vaccinated and mount up their own immunity.

A cold weather virus

Medical professionals have puzzled over why influenza virus strikes hardest every year from November through March. Some theories suggested the short days and lack of sunshine, causing a vitamin D deficiency. Others theorized that people are crowded together indoors.

But most health professional now accept the conclusions of a 2007 study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York: cold, dry weather keeps the virus more stable and stays in the air longer.

‘Flu season in Canada starts in the eastern provinces and moves west as temperatures drop. Calgary has already been hit hard, with 510 confirmed cases since August.

In southern latitudes, the main ‘flu season runs from May until September. In the tropics, there is no real ‘flu season.

Why you should get the ‘flu shot

The ‘flu vaccine is our best defense against the virus and will not only protect you, but also the people you know and love.

–You can’t get the ‘flu from the ‘flu shot. It’s impossible. The viruses used to make the flu shot are dead. The worst side effect is a sore arm.

— It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to fully mount your immunity, so it’s best to get the shot early.

–Healthy people need to get a flu shot to protect people at risk and those who are not eligible. Newborn babies and adults with abnormally weak immune systems usually can’t get ‘flu shots. Their only protection comes from others getting the shot, and keeping the spread of ‘flu to a minimum.

— Influenza is a more serious infection than you may realize. It will exacerbate any underlying health conditions you already have, and may cause new problems, which for some can be deadly.

— It’s hard not to qualify for a publicly-funded (read: free) vaccination.

 

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