Health

Young and old more likely to face severe flu. Here's why doctors think it happens

Canadians have been getting sick enough with seasonal flu to land in hospital, say doctors with suggestions on who is most at risk and what it could mean for festive gatherings.

Earlier flu season than normal has started to hit Canadian hospitals

A female health-care professional prepares a dose of the H1N1 influenza vaccine in 2009.
Licensed nurse practitioner Christine Melanson prepares doses of the H1N1 influenza vaccine at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton, N.B. in 2009. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic continues to affect how younger ones do with flu, doctors say. (David Smith/The Canadian Press)

Canadians have been getting sick enough with seasonal flu to land in hospital, say doctors with suggestions on who is most at risk and what it could mean for festive gatherings.

"We're starting to now see the effect of flu on certain populations, particularly very young children and very older people, in making them sick enough that they need to come into hospital," said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen's University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

During the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, air travel declined. It's one of the suspected reasons that influenza all but disappeared, Evans said.

Flu viruses need human hosts travelling between the southern and northern hemispheres to gain a foothold during winter on both ends of the planet, according to influenza experts.

Dr. Upton Allen, head of infectious diseases at Sick Kids Hospital, said the H3N2 strain of influenza might be associated with more severe disease than other strains. (SickKids)

For about 100 years, doctors have known that the youngest and oldest are most at risk for serious flu. Why hasn't been nailed down, but there are a few possible reasons — including what strains were circulating when you were first exposed.

Generational effects explored

Canadian and international research on humans as well as in animal models suggest that the first strain of flu virus you're infected with tends to prime or shape the immune system. The result is that our immune system responds best to the original type of flu infection it faced.

"That's why we believe that older people who are mostly primed with H1N1 don't do very well during an H3N2 year like we're having this year," Evans said.

Staff at pediatric hospitals like Sick Kids continue to face pressures from pandemic backlogs of surgeries. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic also continues to affect how younger ones do with flu.

Those aged 13 and under were probably primed to H1N1 after 2009, just as their grandparents were in their childhoods, Evans said.

If so, today's kids could be more vulnerable to severe disease from flu now than their parents' generation who first encountered an H3N2 strain.

Evans added it's also thought that older people may have more severe outcomes from flu because of underlying problems such as heart disease, lung disease or treatments for cancer.

Youngest hadn't been exposed 

Another reason why young children are being hit hard by flu and RSV this year: recent pandemic public health measures meant those under two haven't seen flu at all and preschoolers haven't experienced it or another respiratory virus known as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, for a couple seasons.

"The boost of immunity they get from having had some prior exposures in the year before are missing and so they're tending to get infected more," Evans said. 

Dr. Upton Allen, chief of infectious diseases at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, pointed to a few other possibilities.

One is the strain of flu virus that's mainly circulating. It's officially called Influenza A H3N2, which Allen said might be associated with more severe disease.

Also, our immune system is considered weakest at the extremes of life.

"The overwhelming majority of kids who get the flu will get it mild, but some people can get it severe," Allen said.

WATCH | Masking back up:

What would it take to get us to wear masks again? | About That

2 months ago
Duration 23:17
Health experts in Canada and the U.S. are recommending people start wearing masks again with a 'perfect storm' of respiratory diseases on the rise, a strain on our hospital systems and a shortage of medication. But is that enough to get us to wear masks again? Dr. Susy Hota joins About That with Andrew Chang to take us through it all.

If a child is breathing very quickly, having trouble breathing, weak, doesn't wake up or respond then those might indicate a more severe bout. "Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department," Allen said.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reports fewer than five influenza-associated deaths among those aged 16 and younger for the week ending Nov. 19.

"Each year the number of deaths generally are in single digits," for that age group in Canada, Allen said.

Doctor's holiday flu forecast

Marie Tarrant, a professor in the nursing school at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, is concerned about the uptick in hospitalizations from flu for patients and health-care systems trying to provide care to everybody.

"The other side of that is just the burden that is putting on a healthcare system that has been maximally strained for the last 2 ½ years."

A lab technician at work.
A lab technician works in the H1N1 laboratory at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver in 2009. This year's flu season started earlier than the norm. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

People with flu, RSV and other infections have a "compounding effect" of burdening hospitals, she said. Like Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization, Tarrant recommends those aged six months and older who are eligible get a flu shot.

"Flu vaccines prevent about 40 to 60 per cent of serious illness and hospitalization," she said. "They do work."

It's also not too late to get a flu shot, clinicians say.

Plus, flu season started earlier than it typically does this year, which could (eventually) offer a yuletide bright spot. Evans said seasonal flu usually disappears after a period of about six weeks. Canada is now about two weeks into a surge.

"By the time the holidays come around, we should be seeing a waning down of numbers of influenza infections, if it follows the pattern that we have seen now literally for decades."

The good news? "As long as you're feeling OK and you don't have signs and symptoms of a cold, I think gathering together is fine."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amina Zafar

Journalist

Amina Zafar covers medical sciences and health topics, including COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, for CBC News. She holds an undergraduate degree in environmental science and a master's in journalism.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now