Aussie flu spike concerns top doc
But more cases Down Under no guarantee of bad flu season here, medical officer says
While the number of cases of influenza in Australia this year has caused concerns for health officials in Canada and the U.S., Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health has said that’s not a sure indication of how the upcoming flu season will progress.
The Australian government in September reported there had been 2½ times as many confirmed cases this year as in the same period last year. Most North American public health agencies look to the Southern Hemisphere to gauge their own flu seasons.
But Dr. David Colby of the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit said “no person on Earth” could say how the local flu season will roll out this year, because it hasn’t started yet.
“It’s a matter of concern,” he said of Australia’s season, “but it’s not definitive . . . we may have a mild flu season, we cannot predict it.”
Colby said he’s not concerned, but he is “vigilant” when it comes to influenza.
He said the health unit isn’t proceeding differently this year, but there may be a time later in the season when he’ll become concerned.
“I’m certainly not presuming that there’s going to be doom and gloom and I don’t believe that’s naïve optimism,” he said. “I think we really have to assess the situation as it’s developing.”
The Australia situation can help predict which strains of the flu might appear in North America, said Colby, but even that isn’t definite. Sometimes flu vaccine based on those strains is a mismatch for North America, he said, as happened during the 2014-15 flu season.
“The other thing is a pandemic can happen anytime. It’s a random occurrence. It doesn’t happen often,” said Colby.
Lisa Northcott, vice-president and chief nursing officer at Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, said the organization expects a bad season because of the flu activity in Australia this year.
“We actually aren’t really doing anything different this year than we would any other year, because we always go into flu season anticipating . . . the worst that can happen,” she said.
The alliance has policies which “outline where we would open beds, how we would increase our staffing levels to accommodate those extra patients” and address other issues, she said.
Chatham-Kent had 72 confirmed cases during the 2016-17 flu season, the health unit said, a higher volume of cases than the previous season.
The alliance admitted 39 patients with confirmed flu cases — one of which was acquired in hospital — last season. No outbreaks were declared.
“Our policies tell us that when we have a certain number of patients that get hospital-acquired flu illness, then we declare an outbreak,” said Northcott. “When that happens, we have to communicate with Public Health and then we work very closely with them.”
Colby said he hopes area residents get their flu shots, since Ontario is one of the world’s only jurisdictions that offers them free.
“You can’t get the flu from the flu shot,” he said. “The side-effects are usually non-existent or very, very mild. Usually just some local arm soreness.”
He said the health unit had not received any vaccine shipments this week, but they usually arrive toward mid- or late October. The unit then co-ordinates distribution to pharmacies, family doctors and nurse practitioners.
Northcott said the alliance will run daily flu shot clinics for staff from Oct. 19 until the end of November.
Colby also said many people misunderstand what flu is.
“They think it’s diarrhea and upset stomach,” he said. “The flu is fever, chills, cough and muscle aches . . . it doesn’t have anything to do with the digestive tract.
“Some kids who get influenza also . . . get diarrhea with it, but it’s not common in adults.”