Midseason data shows that this year’s flu vaccine has been more effective than usual in preventing illness. It’s a finding that one expert says should encourage more Albertans to get vaccinated before an anticipated resurgence of flu cases later this winter.
The preliminary findings, based on data from Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, show that the vaccine cut the risk of flu-like illness by about half during the fall’s strong wave of influenza A infection.
That’s a “substantial” effect, said Dr. James Dickinson, a professor at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine. He said he exceeds the usual efficacy of the vaccine against the currently dominant H3N2 strain in Alberta, which hovers around 30 percent in a typical year.
“This shows that it’s still worth getting vaccinated,” said Dickinson, who directs Alberta’s community influenza surveillance program.
“There is a good chance that we will have a second (wave of flu) later in the year. We usually have two influenza epidemics.”
Flu season has likely reached its peak in Alberta, health minister says
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Influenza vaccines are often less effective than other immunizations because vaccine manufacturers have to predict which influenza strains will be prevalent in the community when they design the vaccine, an assumption that doesn’t always turn out to be correct.
As of December 31, influenza vaccine coverage in Alberta is 26.9 percent. That’s in line with the previous season, but below the highs set between 2018 and 2020, including the 2020-21 season, when 37 percent of Albertans had a chance.
Coverage is highest in the older age groups, with half of people aged 60-74 immunized and seven in 10 Albertans aged 75 and over. However, rates are slow among young children, the other age group prone to severe illness from the flu; coverage in the under-12 cohort has stagnated below 20%.
Alberta released updated data on flu infections and serious illnesses on Thursday, the first time it had done so in two weeks.
The week ending December 31 marked the sixth consecutive week of decline in flu cases in Alberta, a decline that followed the largest wave of cases in Alberta since 2009.
There have been 1,812 flu hospitalizations in Alberta this season, including 188 people requiring care in intensive care units.
The province has also recorded 77 flu deaths, 20 of which were recently reported on Thursday. That total includes two children under the age of 10.
New COVID-19 Vaccines Available for Alberta Youth
There are also now more options for Alberta parents looking to immunize their children against COVID-19.
Alberta offers a Pfizer bivalent vaccine booster designed to combat the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants for children ages five to 11 years. The protein-based Novavax vaccine is now also available for children ages 12-17; previously, that vaccine was only an option for adults.
The vaccines became available at Alberta Health Services community clinics beginning Thursday, chief medical officer for health Dr. Mark Joffe said in a Twitter thread.
The new vaccines come amid growing concerns about the new Omicron XBB 1.5 subvariant, nicknamed Kraken, which has been taking the United States by storm and is considered to be more infectious and have better immune evasion than previous strains.
Alberta Health said Wednesday it had detected its first four cases of that subvariant, as infectious disease experts predict a local increase is likely.
The Alberta Medical Association said on its Twitter account Thursday that the new variant comes as hospitals continue to feel the strain of the ongoing respiratory virus season. The group encouraged Albertans to get vaccinated, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces and stay home while sick.
“We cannot relax our vigilance. People are getting sick. Hospitals and emergency departments are overwhelmed, while members of the health care team providing care are overstretched, exhausted and worried about the months ahead,” the AMA said.
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