Nova Scotia's chief public health officer isn't convinced North America is about to get walloped by a nastier-than-usual influenza season.

Australia had a worse-than-normal season this year, with numbers of confirmed cases more than double that of the previous year. Some medical experts warn North America should brace for a similar onslaught.

"Are we going to see the same increased flu activity as Australia? Possibly," Dr. Robert Strang said Wednesday. "We do know in all likelihood the strain we are going to see … is going to be an H3N2 strain, which is the same strain we had last year." 

Nova Scotia has its first flu case of the season confirmed on Tuesday, he said.

Free flu shots are available in most doctors' offices, clinics and pharmacies beginning this week, Strang said.

He said it isn't unusual to see sporadic outbreaks of the flu this time of year, with the typical season beginning in December.

Immunization program different in Australia

But Strang said there are some factors that may result in a different outcome from what Australia experienced, even though the major strains — H3N2 and H1N1 — are the same.

"Australia doesn't have a universal immunization program. So not everyone is eligible for publicly funded vaccine."

SWITZERLAND/

Australia doesn't have a universal, publicly funded immunization program like Nova Scotia does. (Valentin Flauraud/Reuters)

That country also recently changed its method of diagnosing the flu, he added.

"That may explain why they are seeing more lab-confirmed cases, at least to some extent."

Similar flu strains this year

The similarity in flu strains from one year to the next can also be beneficial, Strang said.

"We did have a mostly H3N2 season last year. So depending on the amount of change in the virus from last year to this year, there is certainly a possibility of people who were either sick or vaccinated last year, may have some residual immunity that would help protect people this year."

So the predictions of a severe season may or may not happen.

Get immunized

Still, people need to get reimmunized, Strang emphasized.

H3N2 influenza strains typically do produce more severe illnesses, especially among the elderly.

"It's not necessarily we'll have more people sick, but especially in the elderly, the H3N2 strain can typically produce more symptoms … with a greater possibility of developing complications," Strang said.

It also makes other existing health conditions, such as diabetes and congestive heart failure, harder to manage, he said.

Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness strongly recommends the flu shot to most members of the public, particularly higher risk groups such as:

  • Seniors.
  • Children aged six months to five years.
  • Indigenous people.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.
  • People who live with, or care for, people in high-risk groups

People are also urged to regularly wash their hands and cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing.

Flu symptoms often include a sudden high fever, headache, general aches and pains, fatigue and weakness, a runny, stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat. It can lead to more severe illness such as pneumonia or even death.