Flu season didn’t actually happen last year in Canada.
Flu measurements are so low all year long that it actually never crosses the threshold that Public Health Canada typically uses to declare the start of a season – which usually happens in the fall.
PHAC recorded 69 detected cases of flu during the 2020-21 flu season, in its last FluWatch report on Aug. 28. Typically, about 52,000 cases are detected.
Experts say the flu has had a quiet year as we’ve been busy dealing with COVID-19. But what will happen this coming year is a bit harder to say.
Normally, Canada could look to the Southern Hemisphere for clues about what might be going on here, said Dr Gerald Evans, an infectious disease expert at Queen’s University and the Kingston Center for Health Sciences. . Because their winter is in the Canadian summer, he said, it can provide a preview of what’s to come.
Australia is currently reporting “historically low levels” of influenza, according to a report on the government website. It’s not alone: The World Health Organization noted in a recent report that, “Globally, despite continued or even increased influenza testing in some countries, influenza activity continues to persist.” at a lower rate than expected for this time of year.”
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This could be due to two reasons, says Angela Crawley, a scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a professor at the University of Ottawa. First, it may be that despite what the WHO report says, people in some countries aren’t testing or reporting flu like they used to.
“The pandemic has closed us down and so people don’t go to the doctor because of their flu-like symptoms,” she said. And if they did, they could have received a COVID-19 test and if the result was negative, they would have been sent home, she added.
“They may have had the flu, but that hasn’t been tested,” Crawley said.
Second, she said, measures used to contain COVID-19 may also contain the flu.
“Personal protective equipment, such as wearing a mask and the significant impact of social distancing may have influenced the amount or prevalence of the virus in the community,” she said.
This year’s flu
So what does this mean as Canada enters fall? Evans wasn’t sure.
“The closest prediction I can get is that I think we’ll see more numbers than we saw last year,” he said. “But that’s not a difficult prediction to make as we saw record low numbers last year.”
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Continuing to wear masks and improving hand-washing and other hygiene measures, he said, will likely “contain” this year’s flu season, and lifting these measures could in turn cause the flu to return. return.
Evans notes that international travel can also have an impact.
“Just recently, Canada allowed fully vaccinated people from many countries around the world to come to Canada,” he said.
Normally, some flu is brought to Canada by travelers from the Southern Hemisphere, he said, and this did not happen last year because of travel restrictions around the world.
“Now that tourism is back, maybe that will allow for that introduction, and we’ll see cases now because of the import,” he added.
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Crawley isn’t sure what will happen with this year’s flu in Canada, either, but she’s sure Canadians should still get a flu shot when it’s available.
“In terms of immunity, the body does not like to be infected with many things at once. And in fact, pathogens take advantage of this. So if you’re frustrated and out with an infection, a co-infection is more likely to cause you serious illness,” she says.
In other words, you don’t want to have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.
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And more broadly, keeping flu numbers low can help ease the burden on emergency rooms while we’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Crawley added.
“If there is any breakthrough with COVID-19, which puts pressure on hospitalizations, if we also come under pressure on influenza, it could devastate the healthcare industry,” she said. “.
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