Why doctors recommend you get a flu shot this week
Getting vaccinated now will offer prime period of protection over the holidays, health experts say
Families making plans to gather for the holidays should consider getting vaccinated against influenza and stay up to date on other immunizations as part of their preparations, public health officials and medical experts say.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said influenza continues to be well above expected levels for this time of year, with worrisome increases in flu-related hospitalizations, particularly among children.
Data suggests a higher proportion of hospitalizations among those aged 10 to 16 compared with flu seasons that came before the COVID-19 pandemic, with children under five showing the highest totals so far.
ICU admissions and deaths are also higher than usual among children, Tam said.
"As we rapidly approach the holidays, now is the time to get vaccinated if you have not already done so," Tam recommended at a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.
Flu shot's pluses
Canadians aged six months and older who are eligible to get a flu shot should do so now to protect themselves heading into the holiday season, said Dawn Bowdish, an immunologist and professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. Plus, she said, there tends to be a transfer of infection from kids to adults, especially older adults, during this time of year.
"The holidays are a hot spot of transmission. We all get together, we don't have our masks on, we have lots of intergenerational visiting," said Bowdish, who holds the Canada Research Chair on Aging and Immunity. "Getting a flu shot this week will get you into that prime period of protection over the holiday season."
What's more, a flu shot can reduce the time someone is off sick from work, and cuts the severity of symptoms and risk of hospitalization, as well as long-term health risks, like cardiac arrest and other heart conditions, she said.
Getting vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19 also reduces the chance of getting bacterial co-infections that are also leading to hospitalizations, pediatricians say.
Influenza can be serious enough to lead to not having enough oxygen and difficulty breathing, said Dr. Roger Wong, a clinical professor of geriatric medicine at the University of British Columbia.
"The flu shot has been proven to be effective and safe in saving lives," Wong said in an interview. "That's a message that we need to get out."
Mild influenza can lead to a sore throat, fever, muscle aches, sometimes a runny nose and overall fatigue.
Wong noted that the number of older adults who've received at least three doses of COVID-19 vaccines is well over 90 per cent in Canada. But when it comes to the influenza vaccine, he said, it's not even close.
The latest available overall influenza immunization rates among the provinces and territories that responded to requests from CBC News and The Canadian Press were 30 per cent or below — and lower among children. For those aged 65 and older, flu vaccination rates vary from about 50 to 70 per cent.
When Wong asks his patients why they haven't received a flu shot, he said they may not know how serious influenza can be.
"Sometimes it's about the convenience factor," he said.
Wong suggests applying lessons learned from the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to flu shots, such as making the shot more readily available and easier to get for older adults.
"This is not a small thing, because we know that older adults living in a community, many of them are quite homebound and they rarely get out," he said.
Home outreach — as was common during COVID-19, when teams of nurses, doctors and paramedics gave the vaccine to people where they live — could help.
Some 95 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in two years, according to Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. Last week, Health Canada approved bivalent boosters for children aged five to 11, offering protection against more recent variants, as well as the ancestral strain.
It is safe to get COVID and flu shots at the same appointment, according to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which urges initial COVID immunizations as a top priority, with booster doses also recommended for everyone eligible. The suggested timing for COVID boosters varies.
Protecting ourselves against both COVID-19 and influenza also protects our health-care systems from further strain, noted Wong.
Going beyond the holidays, influenza vaccines offer about six months of protection, to carry people through the respiratory virus season.
With files from CBC's Christine Birak and The Canadian Press