No safe distance
By Jim Poling
Published Nov. 9, 2017
One bug season ends, another begins. The one just begun is one to be concerned about.
The late autumn-winter flu bug season already is showing evidence that it will be more severe than usual.
Australia’s winter flu season is just ending with the most laboratory-confirmed flu infections in the last 25 years. Some 222,000 cases were confirmed there this year, more than two and one-half times the number last year. As of mid-October, 504 flu patients had died, Australia’s health department reported.
This year’s main flu culprit is A(H3N2). It hits older people hardest.
There is no such thing as a safe distance in today’s world and Australia’s outbreak will be seen elsewhere. Early surveillance shows above normal Canadian flu activity already and the majority of cases are A(H3N2).
Flu statistics in most places, Canada included, are notoriously unreliable. Our federal government says tens of thousands of Canadians fall ill from the flu every year and thousands die from its complications. However, its figures are pulled out of guesswork.
Most of us who contract the flu do not go to hospital so no one knows how many get it. All anybody knows is how many people are hospitalized with influenza and how many confirmed deaths there have been.
Last year there were roughly 5,300 flu hospitalizations in Canada and 331 confirmed deaths.
We should pay less attention to the numbers and focus on the future threats of influenza, notably the possibility of a pandemic. Many respected medical agencies and medical minds believe we are overdue for a pandemic that will kill tens of thousands, even millions, depending on how we prepare for it.
A virus capable of igniting pandemic already is circulating. It is a bird flu named H7N9 that has mutated to enable itself to jump from birds to humans. In one study, 88 percent of people infected with H7N9 got pneumonia, and 41 percent died.
What that strain cannot do yet is transmit easily from person to person. Researchers believe that could change. If it does, and if the strain retains its potency during mutation, we will have a pandemic in which millions die.
H7N9 is ranked by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the flu bug with the most potential to cause a devastating worldwide outbreak.
This winter and spring will mark the 100th anniversary of the greatest pandemic of modern times – the Spanish flu. That flu, misnamed because it did not begin in Spain, killed an estimated 40 to 50 million people worldwide.
It travelled to Canada with troops coming back from the First World War. It spread rapidly, reaching deep into the nation, including remote areas. Quebec and Labrador were particularly hard hit.
An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians died. The disastrous outbreak led to the formation of the federal department of health in 1919.
The death rate for a usual influenza is only a fraction of one per cent. The death rate for the Spanish flu worldwide was 2.5 per cent and it particularly attacked and killed young adults. Researchers calculated that life expectancy in the United States fell to 39 years of age from 51 during the 1918-19 pandemic.
This year’s flu shot will not prevent takers from getting the flu. Health authorities say, however, that it should lessen the severity and keep people out of hospital.
Much has been written to describe our annual influenzas and how we live, and die, with them. One of my favourite descriptions is my own, written in the opening to my 2006 book Killer Flu: The World on the Brink of A Pandemic.
“Influenza is like the village madman. He prowls the shadows of our communities, emerging occasionally to disrupt our lives and hurt relatively small groups of people.
“Once every few decades, he runs screaming into the streets maiming and killing in much larger numbers. We fear him during these insane episodes, but we know we are incapable of killing him, or even banishing him. So when he returns to the shadows, we nervously accept his presence as a distressing part of the life cycle, and then try to forget him.”