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Flu increasing more sharply than past seasons, chief public health officer says

Flu is rising sharply in Canada as another respiratory virus that was hitting young children starts to decline, Canada’s chief public health officer says.

Dr. Theresa Tam told a briefing in Ottawa on Friday that since last week’s update, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) activity has levelled off somewhat and is likely to stay elevated for weeks.

“At present, influenza is showing a steep rise in activity with most surveillance indicators increasing and all trending above expected levels for this time of the year,” Tam said.

Both RSV and flu are thought to be more prevalent after more than two years of precautions, such as physical distancing and masking during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, were lifted.

“We actually had very few reports of influenza in the last two-plus years, so I think that’s partly the driver,” Tam said. Flu is increasing faster than “what we’ve seen in most of any past season that I’m aware of.”

Children’s medication on the way

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also said on Friday that an extra 500,000 units of kids’ pain relievers imported from Australia is expected over the next few weeks for hospital pharmacies.

That’s on top of a previously announced one million bottles of acetaminophen, sold under the brand name Tylenol, and ibuprofen, sold as Advil and Motrin, arriving now on the shelves of community pharmacies, he said.

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“In some places, the shelves already show those units received,” Duclos told reporters. “We expect that in the next week the availability of those doses will be quite clear in shelves across community pharmacies across the country.”

Domestic production of pain relievers for young children is also up to meet increased demand, Duclos said.

Shelita Dattani, vice-president of pharmacy affairs for the Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada, said pharmacies are starting to receive liquid acetaminophen. 

“Pharmacies across the country are starting to receive it depending on the chain or banner,” Dattani said in an email.

Most pharmacies are keeping the products behind the counter with purchase limits, she said.

“Don’t ask for more than what you need,” Dattani recommended. 

Woman shows bandage on arm after receiving annual flu vaccine.
Northwest Territories Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola received her annual flu vaccine at the Yellowknife vaccine clinic in October. Influenza has arrived early and has increased sharply this year in Canada, officials say. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC)

Rimon El-Serafi, a pharmacist in Toronto, said he has about seven bottles of liquid Children’s Advil for those aged two to 12, which he expects will be sold quickly.

El-Serafi said more adults of all ages are also coming in for flu immunizations, saying they want to protect family and friends. 

“We are getting quite a bit of interest on a daily basis.”

Children’s hospitals overwhelmed

Children’s hospitals across the country have been slammed with admissions from a mix of RSV, influenza and COVID-19, which is also contributing to staffing shortages, long waits in emergency departments and for beds, and the cancellation of scheduled surgeries in some places.

As families make holiday plans, Tam reminded people that flu vaccines are available across the country for those six months and older.

Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said children are at significant risk for flu since the community-based immunity that would have occurred in the previous couple of years does not exist.

“I think the respiratory virus season will be the most challenging since before the pandemic,” Conway said.

Habits such as handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and wearing a mask reduce the likelihood of getting a respiratory virus such as flu, RSV and the virus that causes COVID-19. Health officials say this is particularly important given the extremely stretched health system, including pediatric hospitals.

On Friday, Quebec announced it will expand free flu vaccines for all. Until now, it was the only Canadian province that did not regularly offer the vaccine free of charge to all its residents.

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