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Alberta seeing deadliest flu season in recent memory; experts point to low vaccination rates

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Alberta’s flu season has yet to end, but it’s already ranking as the deadliest in recent memory since the mid-1990s when reliable stats were first tracked.

So far, 148 Albertans have died of influenza in the 2023 to 2024 season, which is an increase from the 123 deaths last season.

According to provincial data, there have been 2,189 Albertans hospitalized for the flu this season, which includes 223 admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU).

“Certainly, we’re seeing a high hospital burden this year in terms of admissions and also deaths and an interesting thing that we’re noticing is that there’s a lot of cases in the 18 to 65-year-old age group in Alberta,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger.

“We see that sometimes with H1N1 years and this wasn’t an H1N1 year, but the severe disease in that group is actually very striking with a lot of hospital admissions and that group also had very little vaccine uptake as well.”

The majority of deaths are people over 70, however, there are a handful of younger people include two children under the age 10.

The most recent data shows there have been 12,053 cases of influenza in the 2023-24 season so far, compared to 9,784 last year.

Proportionally, the number of deaths over the past two seasons remained the same when compared to case numbers, with roughly 1.2 per cent of all flu cases resulting in death.

Mother mourns death of daughter

Three-year-old Letezia Veronica Cinco is described by her family as a little girl who loved to sing and make people smile any chance she could get.

On Nov. 25, 2023, she died after she was diagnosed with an influenza virus that affected the functioning of her brain.

“We were just standing there seeing the doctors putting a tube in Letezia’s mouth and that was the last time I saw her and she didn’t wake up anymore,” said Merthyl Cinco, Letezia’s mother.

“She was very sweet, she kept telling me I love you, mama, she always hugged me and she was my only daughter.”

Three-year-old Letezia Veronica Cinco was diagnosed with an influenza virus that affected the functioning of her brain. (Courtesy: Merthyl Cinco)

Cinco, who arrived in Canada from the Philippines in July of 2023 on a student visa with three kids says she is absolutely devastated.

She says Letezia spent six days in an Edmonton ICU before her death, calling it the most heartbreaking moment for any mother to ever experience.

“I just miss her presence,” she said.

“Letezia did not get a flu vaccine before arriving in Canada, but she was such a healthy kid and the doctors still don’t know what happened.”

Experts call for better vaccine messaging

Alberta has the highest flu death count documented since standardized reporting first began in 2009, but the province has also changed how it reports flu deaths.

In the 2014-15 season, for example, there were 114 deaths amongst Albertans hospitalized for the flu, but at that time, the province did not track influenza deaths outside of a hospital setting.

Community deaths outside of hospital settings including those reported by paramedics, firefighters or police officers first became reportable in the 2020-21 season, according to Alberta Health.

Despite the discrepancy in reporting, this influenza season certainly does stand out with the bulk of Alberta’s cases accumulating between October and January under the H3N2 strain, a subtype of influenza A.

Dr. Craig Jenne, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, says there’s a definite causation to why this year’s flu deaths have increased, but he says vaccination in Alberta ranks as amongst the lowest in Canada.

“We do know that there's a lower vaccine uptake in the community and this not only reduces personal protection but prevents or reduces the ability to prevent transmission to at-risk people,” said Jenne.

“So the more people vaccinated, the less the virus circulates, but we've also seen with other viruses, the impact of infection and people that previously had COVID. So, there is some impact of previously having COVID on your immune system responding to later challenges and we're not sure yet if that's contributing to flu severity this year.”

According to provincial data, less than one-quarter of Albertans – 24.1 per cent – have received their annual flu shot so far this respiratory virus season.

That’s a slight decrease from the 28 per cent vaccination rate in the 2022 to 2023 season and a dramatic drop from the high of 37 per cent in 2020-21.

The last time the province saw an influenza vaccine rate this low was when uptake hit 24 per cent all the way back in the 2012-13 flu season.

“Alberta Health Services’ fall immunization advertising campaign is running from mid-October 2023 to the end of February 2024, and includes radio, television, newspaper, social media, and billboard adds reminding Albertans that influenza and COVID-19 vaccines are available,” an emailed statement from the office of Health Minister Adriana LaGrange reads.

“Influenza vaccine continues to be available at ~2,000 locations (Alberta Health Services public health clinics, and community pharmacies across the province).

“If Albertans have questions about respiratory virus immunizations, they are encouraged to discuss this with their primary care provider.”

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