Australia's bad flu season could be a factor in Canada's own sick season: scholar

It's flu season in Canada, and to discuss what people can expect this year, CBC News was recenly joined by scholar and self-described 'crisis-ologist' Chris Kutarna, who is from Regina and has written extensively about the spread of disease.

A country's distance from Canada doesn't mean a lick when it comes to flu season: crisis-ologist

Chris Kutarna says wash your hands — and be thorough. (CBC)

It's flu season in Canada, and to discuss what people can expect this year, CBC News was recenly joined by scholar and self-described "crisis-ologist" Chris Kutarna. 

Kutarna is from Regina and has written extensively about the spread of disease.

Q: What's your prediction for this flu season?

A: I'm not an epidemiologist, more like a "crisisologist" — I study the spread of risk and how that's changed over the last 25, 35 years. Public health is a big dimension where the risks have changed dramatically. So public health officials in Australia think that it was their deepest flu season in 10, maybe 30 years, as far back as as 1990.

If you look at how Australia relates to the rest of the world today, versus 1990, a lot has changed. There's four times more people that come and go to that continent every day, there's about 15 times more live animals in the livestock trade. So, in terms of what spreads disease out of Australia, just the scale of the spread is a lot bigger 25, 30 years later than it was in the past.

Q: You can see that spread of illness coming at us in the next few months? 

A: It's certainly a big factor. One big factor is what's coming at us. And then there are a lot of things that go into determining what the flu season will be here in Canada. How resilient is the Canadian population to the viruses that finally do enter into our population? How does something like the Australian flu, I think it was H3N2, which proved to be pretty resilient to the vaccines that we have available, how does that virus mutate on the way to Canada?

So a lot can change, and there are no clear causal lines when you study something as complex as how diseases spread.

One of the other big variables is how seriously do we take the threat of the flu season — are we religiously washing our hands? Are we getting our flu shots? Those are the things that are ultimately going to determine how deep of a flu season it is for us here.

Are there viruses out there in the world that have proven resilient to the vaccines that we have available now? And are they spreading? We know the answer to that. It certainly is yes.

Q: Have we seen it here in Canada yet?

A: I think that's a question best answered by the local epidemiology. I live in the U.K. and that's where my technical knowledge is best. Australia experienced about 175,000 cases and 92 fatalities. So, we know that it's not the most virulent form of the flu that Australia has ever seen. 

We know it's fast changing and fast mutating, so that makes it hard for the vaccines to keep up with the [...] flu that's in the population, but I'm sure that public health officials in Canada are working hard to give us sort of the latest update on what is the strain of the virus that is with us this season and how effective are our vaccines.

Q: What's the best thing we can do?

A: The basics are the things that we all already know: wash our hands regularly and thoroughly, be aware of how often we touch our faces, which is actually several thousands times a day, which is hard to believe but that's what the research shows.

Especially if we're going to be in public [...] places: train stations, airports, subways.

I think the bigger lesson to take away is just to recognize that, and this really my research, that the nature of risk has changed. We used to believe that there was such a thing as a safe distance. But I really think that just in the way a 9 to 5 workday is starting to disappear, so is that notion that distance makes us safe.

There really hasn't been much public awareness at all that, because if was a severe flu season in Australia, that's a threat to us too — and that's a mental shift that we all need to make.