More young people are dying from the flu — here's what you need to know

Nurse Nicole Simpson prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. The U.S. government's latest flu report released on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, showed flu season continued to intensify the previous week, with high volumes of flu-related patient traffic in 42 states, up from 39 the week before. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Nurse Nicole Simpson prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

This year’s flu is hitting younger people especially hard.

In Nova Scotia, at least eight people between the ages of 45 and 64 have died after contracting influenza, according to The Chronicle Herald.

And across Canada, kids aged five to nine have been disproportionately affected by the respiratory infection. They made up 14 per cent of all cases in 2018/19—at least double the rate of epidemics of 2015/16 and 2013/14, according to a new Eurosurveillance study.

“In general, healthy young people are at low risk of death due to influenza, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen and it does happen,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Danuta M. Skowronski, epidemiology lead of influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens at the BC Centre for Disease Control. “H1N1 [a strain of Type A influenza] tends to have a more youthful profile.

“It’s a tragedy when it happens,” she adds, “but the individual risk of death is still low for otherwise healthy young people.”

Age itself has been identified as a risk factor for influenza complications, with those aged 65 years and over more susceptible to severe illness or death. However, this year’s season is a reminder that younger people aren’t immune to the flu’s potentially serious effects.

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A woman in Nova Scotia recently took her family’s tragic story to the media after her 37-year-old son—a father of five—died due to complications of the flu. Before coming down with symptoms, which included trouble breathing, he had been perfectly healthy, the woman told The Chronicle Herald. She went public to urge people to get vaccinated; her son had not been.

The newspaper reported that significantly more people under 65 have been diagnosed with Type A influenza this season compared to last, with nearly three times as many people under the age of 65 have been diagnosed this year. The 45-to-64 age range saw the biggest jump, from 66 cases to 166 cases.

What’s also distinguishing this year’s flu season is what is called a “bimodal epidemic.”

The first wave that peaked in January consisted predominantly of H1N1, while an atypical late-season second wave of H3N2, another type A strain, has spread across the country, Skowronski says.

H3N2 tends to be especially hard on the elderly. It’s important for seniors to be watching for flu symptoms and, if they have them, to get early anti-viral treatment.

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“I have not seen anything like this,” Skowronski says. “We’ve had a double peak, back to back, a first one due to H1N1 then kind of a chaser of H3N2. It means that basically across the age span has been affected by this year’s double whammy.”

She says medical experts are now carefully watching the southern hemisphere, which is having an early start to its flu season, to get clues as to what Canada might experience next year.

While we’re likely past the peak of the late-onset H3N2, Skowronski suggests it’s worth setting a reminder for the late fall to get vaccinated, before headlines and headaches start circulating with this coming winter’s flu.

“If you didn’t get it this year, think about getting it earlier next season,” Skowronski says. “You’re going to get the maximum benefit if you get it before the epidemic peaks.”

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