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Surge of flu cases, norovirus hits B.C.

A spike in flu cases to abnormally high levels in late December has public health officials watchful in case the illness spreads even faster now that kids are back in school.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control said the province is seeing the highest levels of suspected influenza activity in a decade.

The main flu virus circulating this year is H3N2, which is one of the three varieties covered by this year's flu vaccine.

The reopening of schools may mean even more potential for the virus to spread between students and then to homes.

"It is a potential concern that children can facilitate the spread, they can amplify the spread," epidemiologist Dr. Danuta Skowronski said.

Kids are more susceptible to flu because they have less lifetime exposure to the various viruses than adults, she said.

They also have richer social networks and they're confined together in schools, making transmission more likely.

The H3N2 virus generally tends to be "more severe" than other types, Skowronski said, but added it's too early to say if this year's flu cases are tending to be worse than normal.

The virus has been in circulation in the human population since 1968 but constantly mutates to defeat the immunity of its hosts.

There have also been several flu outbreaks at long-term care homes so far this season.

Skowronski said it's not too late to get the flu shot and strongly urged the elderly and those with chronic conditions or compromised immune systems to get it soon.

She also recommends vulnerable groups get early treatment with antiviral medication within 48 hours of symptoms to reduce the risk of a dangerous flu bout.

Skowronski said she's not concerned about a reported shortage of Tamiflu antiviral medication, adding B.C. has enough stockpiled for high-risk patients.

The flu season typically runs from November through April and Skowronski said a late-winter wave of flu cases is possible this year from a different flu virus.

Health officials are also grappling with a new strain of norovirus, which changes its form every few years, resulting in more cases than usual.

"Many people don't have immunity to this new strain," said Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma. "This is a very unpleasant virus but it usually passes within 24 to 48 hours."

The "very contagious" gastrointestinal infection causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Officials have battled norovirus outbreaks already at Royal Columbian, Eagle Ridge and Vancouver General hospitals, prompting some ward closures.

Juma said ward closures due to norovirus are very normal each winter.

Anyone who gets the flu or norovirus is urged to stay home, get rest and drink plenty of liquids.

Aggressive hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of either illness and norovirus-contaminated surfaces should be cleaned swiftly with hot, soapy water and then disinfected with a household disinfectant.

Besides taking care to cover coughs and sneezes, officials recommend regular cleaning of frequently touched objects, such as doorknobs and remote controls.

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