John Arnold, in Jurassic Park likely said it best; “Hold on to your Butts”. This is going to be a long rough winter inside Canadian Hospitals, because Ebola isn’t likely to kill Canadians, but Influenza certainly will. In Medicine we rely heavily upon the media to help disseminate information and policy to the public, but unfortunately I suspect that they are currently doing more harm than good. The current Ebola crisis has taken over international news, and seems to be on the forefront of everyone’s minds; but are they setting us up for a potential disaster?
About Ebola and the Flu
Ebola is certainly a significant concern – it is being recognized as a pandemic, and international health agencies are scrambling to contain the disease. As of writing this article, there have been zero reported cases in Canada. I’ll repeat that, zero. In contrast, the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates approximately 10-20% of Canadians are infected with influenza annually (up to seven million people). Of this cohort, approximately 20,000 people are hospitalized as a result of the illness, and the disease accounts for about 4000 deaths annually.
Last year, Canadian hospitals noted that we had our major spike of Influenza around January, and that it had hit us seasonally late. This year, however, we are already seeing the spread of the flu. It is anticipated that we are going to see an earlier and more deadly spike of the disease this season, in particular an abundance of the H3N2 strain, which is known to be particularly detrimental to the elderly and other vulnerable populations.
While I acknowledge that Ebola is a major health concern, it shouldn’t be the only medical news story of the day. This year, significantly more people are going to die from Influenza rather than Ebola. Canadian hospitals are preparing to deal with potential Ebola cases – because that is our job, and that is what we do best – and the media is just infatuated with reporting it in minute detail.
However, we also rely heavily on the media to remind the public about flu shots and up-to-date influenza information. This has become almost a yearly tradition – Halloween, pumpkin spice lattes and Flu shots. Due to the heavy media coverage of Ebola, however, this is getting overlooked – and that’s why we are in trouble.
The burden of the common flu
Beyond people dying from influenza, it will create a significant burden on the health care system. With emergency department visits reaching record numbers over the past year, sick patients (who otherwise potentially could’ve avoided getting the flu) will put further strain on the system. With hospitals often at capacity, and waiting rooms overflowing, the system may not be able to handle an especially bad flu year.
I recognize that influenza isn’t a ‘hot topic’ or particularly newsworthy, but unlike the media, in medicine we care more about saving lives, and that’s why I’d like to emphasize the importance of flu vaccines and influenza education. In a system with a finite number of resources, we need to focus efforts on high-yield, life saving efforts.
What can you do? Get your flu vaccine, recommend it to your loved ones, practice good hand washing and hygiene techniques.
Back to John Arnold; “Hold on to your Butts,” Canada, because if we’re not prepared for when influenza hits this season, we are in a world of trouble. So let’s stop focusing all our attention on Ebola, and focus on what will undoubtedly turn out to be the real killer of the year.
- Public Health Agency of Canada: Reported Influenza Hospitalizations and Deaths in Canada: 2009-10 to 2014-15 (data to October 4, 2014). http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/influenza/flu-stat-eng.php
- Public Health Agency of Canada: Statement on Seasonal Influenza Vaccine for 2013-2014. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/ccdr-rmtc/13vol39/acs-dcc-4/index-eng.php
- Public Health Agency of Canada: FluWatch report: September 21 to October 4, 2014 (Weeks 39 and 40). http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/fluwatch/14-15/w40_14/index-eng.php