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Especially tough strain of flu this season has experts pushing for vaccinations

If you haven’t been subjected to this year’s flu virus, count yourself lucky.

The H3N2 strand of influenza has been dominating this flu season and is known for being particularly rough, especially for seniors.

Stephanie DeWitte-Orr is an assistant professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Health Sciences and Biology program, as well as an innate immunologist and virologist who studies how bodies detect virus infections.

She says the H3N2 strand is known to be generally difficult for the elderly because the virus can take advantage of less robust immune systems. With that in mind, she recommends everyone get vaccinated.

“A lot of people who are healthy, their immune system can handle it or they could just not be in situations where they get exposed to influenza very much. The problem is if you’re not vaccinated and you are infected you can spread it to more at-risk groups who can’t get vaccinated like the very young. Even if you might feel okay yourself, you could be putting another group at risk,” DeWitte-Orr explained.

Two different types of vaccines are available: inactivated vaccines and live attenuated vaccines. An inactivated vaccine is when the virus has been killed so the virus can’t replicate. So you’re putting a dead virus in somebody. All people who get the flu shot get the inactivated type.

The two choices of inactivated vaccines are trivalent and quadrivalent. In the Waterloo Region most people are getting the trivalent because that’s what the public health department bought. The trivalent has two influenza A strains and one influenza B. The quadrivalent has two As and two Bs.

“There’s also the live attenuated and that’s when you actually have a virus that’s been grown in a condition that makes them replicate at low temperature so that they’re still alive but they don’t replicate very well at human temperature. They’ve been modified and they don’t cause disease but they do replicate a little bit and your immune system notices that and responds,” DeWitte-Orr explained.

The flu mist uses a live attenuated vaccine, which is administered in the nose and can be requested from your doctor.

Through her studies she’s found that all animals have very similar innate immune responses, which are the first line of defense that your body has against a virus. The hope is to develop ways of triggering innate immunity to create a broad spectrum antiviral.

“Vaccine platforms are based on adaptive immunity – where you’re vaccinating somebody and you’re creating memory which is important – but it’s an adaptive immune response, which is very specific to that one strain. If you don’t predict the right strain, then you’ve vaccinated people against something that they don’t need to be protected against and you’ve missed the one they need to be protected against. So, with a broad-spectrum antiviral drug then we could treat somebody for any virus,” DeWitte-Orr said.

In Canada, an average of 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths related to the flu occur each year.

Penelope Ironstone, an associate professor in Laurier’s department of Communication Studies, is an expert on health and risk communication.

She’s spent a lot of time studying the way we talk about and try to make sense of outbreaks like Ebola and Zika most recently. She says there’s a lot of anxiety about the latest virus that’s circulating. And yet, when it comes to influenza, many people fail to see the benefit in getting the free vaccine.

“One of the challenges for public health is how is it that you can convey an important public health message to populations that are either being conditioned by movies like Contagion or are conditioned by the assumption of the banality to the disease, so how is it that you can break through the sense of assumptions that people have,” Ironstone said.

One step she’d like to see taken is for the public health department to stop trying to compete for limited attention spans through traditional advertising tools. While those have worked on some levels like encouraging more people to buckle up when they’re in a vehicle, public service announcements advising the public to get the flu shot haven’t been as effective.

“I think that era of the dominance of a traditional advertising format is gone and I think there needs to be a move towards a genre that is specific to public health, that can be understood in and of itself,” Ironstone said.

Last year was pretty mild in flu terms, she says, and this year’s a little bit harder with an increased rate of infection and hospitalization. She suggests the public should take the virus more seriously by staying home when they are sick – or keeping their kids home when they’re sick – and washing your hands frequently.

“It’s important to know there’s still time to get vaccinated. Vaccine uptake has actually been not fantastic this year especially given the fact we were told at the beginning of August that H3N2 is the one that’s coming, you should vaccinate yourself because it’s a nasty one, it’s one that causes us to be sicker for longer,” Ironstone said.

According to the Region of Waterloo’s Public Health department as of Jan. 10 there have been 76 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza and three institutional influenza outbreaks reported in the region this season. Among laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza in the region, there have been 25 hospitalizations and zero deaths.

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