Zero lab reported flu cases may be due to pandemic practices, says doctor

It's been a mild flu season in Alberta with not a single lab-confirmed case since reporting started in September.

There were 8,000 confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta last season

Dr. James Dickinson says pandemic responses such as wearing masks and physical distancing can stop transmission of influenza virus as well. (Bert Savard/CBC)

It's been a mild flu season in Alberta with not a single lab-confirmed case since reporting started in September.

Dr. James Dickinson, a professor of family medicine at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine, runs the Alberta community influenza surveillance program. 

He says it's extremely unusual to see zero cases during this time of the year, but it may be due to Albertans' response to the COVID-19 pandemic — wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and not travelling.

"We're not getting any [flu] coming in because we're just not getting enough people arriving, bringing the flu with them, because of the places where they might come from there isn't any flu, either," he told the Calgary Eyeopener.

During the last flu season, there were over 8,000 confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta, 2,500 hospitalizations and 39 deaths, the doctor said.

"Now we're halfway through the season and by this time last year, we would have had about half that number," he said. 

Dickinson says this data is collected by the Alberta provincial laboratories' surveillance program.

While some people who do get the flu don't get tested for it, others may go to hospital or COVID testing centres and be swabbed for a range of viral diseases.

"They are analyzed not just for COVID, but also for this panel of influenza-type viruses, just to make sure," he said.

"And we're just not finding any."

This information is not a unique phenomenon in Alberta. Dickinson says that across Canada, labs are getting a similar set of responses.

"There just isn't much flu at all," he said.

"And that's the whole point of having a flu surveillance network: to watch out for what's going on, to try to understand it better so we can do better next time."

Dickinson says a whole new field of research will emerge as they look to see if measures against COVID worked against other respiratory viruses.

"As we learn more about it, we'll let you know what we know is likely to be most effective."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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