Flu season is around the corner, and when Dr. Danuta Skowronski is asked what she would tell people who do not want to get the vaccine, she says it depends on who she’s talking to.
Skowronski, who is often sought out by the media regarding the contagious respiratory illness, is the lead epidemiologist for influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
“For people who have high-risk conditions for serious influenza complications—by that I mean the elderly and people with heart and lung conditions of any age, specially—those individuals should understand that the influenza vaccine can be lifesaving for them,” Skowronski told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Family members and caregivers of these individuals should also get the flu shot, she added.
“The vaccine can help prevent direct transmission to them, and you don’t want to be the one to have transmitted that virus to your vulnerable loved one or the person in your care,” Skowronski said.
The physician also said that even though the vaccine doesn’t render someone invincible, “for individuals at high risk of hospitalization or death, you know, even a small amount of protection can be very meaningful.”
In the case of healthy individuals, Skowronski said that the flu shot is “still a valuable option”.
“It is an individual choice whether or not to get the vaccine, and you may have particular reasons or a particular context for getting it,” she said. “Perhaps you do want to avoid a miserable illness. And influenza is a miserable illness. You know, a week of extreme fatigue, ache, cough… It’s quite nasty. And the vaccine will help reduce that risk.”
Skowronski has been working on flu with the BCCDC for almost 20 years. According to her, the flu shot is different from other “excellent vaccines”, like the one for measles, which, she said, people need in order to stop outbreaks from occurring.
“Influenza is very complex,” Skowronski explained. “Influenza is not like our other vaccine-preventable diseases. It’s the only vaccine that changes every year, that we have to readminister every year to keep pace with the evolving virus.”
The flu season usually starts in the fall and lasts until spring. “We are currently already picking up some low-level influenza activity, but sustained transmission in the community typically occurs sometime between November and April,” Skowronski noted.
In its first surveillance bulletin for the 2017-18 season, the BCCDC reports that the influenza A virus subtype H3N2 was dominant in the sporadic activity observed in the province during the week of October 1 to 7.
“What we don’t like are epidemics that are due to H3N2, because those are typically associated with more hospitalizations, more deaths, more care-facility outbreaks, and the elderly are particularly affected by H3N2,” Skowronski said.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which provides recommendations to the Public Health Agency of Canada, suggests that people six months of age and older get vaccinated against the flu every year.
A 2015 study by Statistics Canada showed that about a third of the population aged 12 years and older across the country received a flu vaccination in 2013-14, a slight increase compared to 2003.
The study also looked at immunization rates for people aged 12 to 64 with one or more chronic conditions. These include asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, effects of stroke, obesity, bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In B.C., the rate of flu immunization for people with chronic conditions rose from 31 percent in 2003 to 35 percent in 2013-14. For those with no chronic conditions, the rate increased from 19 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2013-14.
“Where I would like to see it [rate of immunization] higher is within those at-risk groups, because I truly believe that it’s a double tragedy when someone who has an underlying condition succumbs due to influenza and could have been protected against it,” Skowronski said.
In addition to getting a shot, one can greatly reduce the risk of getting or spreading influenza through some simple steps: wash hands regularly; cough and sneeze into shirtsleeves inside the elbow rather than on one’s hands; and when sick, stay at home, drink a lot of fluids, and get plenty of rest.