The leaves are changing colours and there is a chill in the air; ah yes, flu season is upon us.
This might leave you wondering — should we vaccinate? Or, in the famous words of Star Trek’s most infamous virus, the Borg, is resistance futile?
Before we jump to dramatic intergalactic conclusions, let’s dig a little deeper.
The science of the flu
The flu, or influenza, is a group of viruses that belong to the Orthomyxovirdae family. The two that dominate the seasonal epidemics — influenzas A and B — generally peak from December to February each year.
The first type, influenza A, can be further broken down into different subtypes based on two proteins on the surface of the virus — named hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).
You may have already heard of these terms from the 2009 emergence of the H1N1 virus, which caused an influx of influenza cases, and ultimately led scientists to develop a new vaccine.
To save you from reading through every subtype of Influenza A — which comprises 18 different hemagglutinin subtypes and 11 different neuraminidases — I’ll highlight the complexity that causes the virus to exist as so many subtypes.
The influenza virus is known to have a sneaky ability to change its genetic properties as it replicates in our bodies. This evasive maneuver dodges our bodies’ immune responses, which allows the virus to proliferate and survive. These changes in the virus’s genetic properties create the different variations, or strains, of the pathogen.
This adds to the difficulty of predicting which strains will dominate the season each year.
To grapple with this complexity, the Public Health Agency of Canada is in a constant state of surveillance, releasing weekly reports to keep the public and providers aware of the current state of influenza activity.
According to the agency, influenza activity remains at the relatively low levels between flu seasons across Canada.
Why you should get vaccinated
Vaccine creation involves year-round surveillance for influenza, involving collaboration from scientists and policymakers from major centres of disease prevention across the globe.
Evidence-based standards and guidelines are established to guide vaccine creation. In Canada, there is a diverse set of organizations, including the Public Health Agency, involved in this development.
Unfortunately, despite these tremendous efforts, universal coverage of all strains is not guaranteed. Despite this imperfection, is it worth getting a vaccine?
In short, yes. It’s true in any year, even when you’re vaccinated, you still have the chance of getting the flu. However, vaccination is about reducing your risk, not necessarily eliminating it.
On a public health scale, the benefits have been proven in a variety of populations, as supported by research. There is great value in getting your flu shot, especially because it has minimal side effects.
On the other hand, the cost of influenza is steep. It’s estimated that it causes approximately 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.
“Influenza season is a critical time of year for the emergency department,” said Victoria Woolner, an adjunct lecturer at U of T’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation and nurse practitioner at the University Health Network, in an interview with The Varsity.
“The patients we care for are at particular risk, so it’s important we do our part in getting vaccinated to reduce the risk to vulnerable populations.”
How to stop yourself from catching the flu
“No vaccine is perfectly protective in any year, so it’s imperative to practice good infection control,” Woolner continued.
To prevent infection, students should adopt simple habits such as good hand-washing; coughing and sneezing into the bend of their arm; disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched, such as cell phones and door knobs; and having a balanced diet along with exercise to keep immune system defences ready for battle.
Students near UTSG can get vaccinated at the outpatient pharmacies at Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital.
For students at UTSC, the campus’ wellness centre will also be offering flu shots for students, free of charge.
Students across all three campuses, including UTM, can also receive vaccinations from Toronto Public Health, which offers free flu clinics around the city, as well as pharmacies such as Rexall and Shoppers Drug Mart.
It’s important to get vaccinated. Borrowing the words of a fictional science officer who reduced risks on the final frontier, it will help you to “live long and prosper.”