AFTER a few quiet years, influenza is rampant this season, with a significant spike in hospitalizations and deaths associated with influenza in some parts of the province.
Vancouver Coastal Health, which oversees the North Shore as well as many communities in B.C., has reported a slight increase in flu cases this season relative to the last few uneventful flu seasons.
However, the Fraser Health Authority, which looks after British Columbians in cities including Burnaby and Surrey, has reported three times the number of flu-related deaths in residential care facilities compared to the last three years combined.
"This year is much more severe than the last several years, but not more severe than the year before that," said Dr. Brian O'Connor, Vancouver Coastal Health's medical health officer for the North Shore.
"It's just that for the last few years we've had a very, very quiet influenza season."
Anyone who has not received a flu shot is required to don a surgical mask when visiting a residential care facility, following the Fraser Health Authority's decision to declare the flu outbreak a health hazard.
The decision will likely slow down the spread of influenza, according to O'Connor.
"He's looking at it from the point of view that if he (FHA chief medical health officer Dr. Paul Van Buynder) doesn't do something to try to prevent an influenza outbreak from occurring in a facility, it could go on all season," O'Connor said.
The norovirus, a form of gastroenteritis sometimes confused with the flu, has also been spreading, according to O'Connor.
In the case of the norovirus, the symptoms tend to be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Flu symptoms generally consist of fever, cough, runny eyes and nose, and feelings of extreme fatigue.
"People will make comments like: 'I feel like I've been hit by a bus,'" O'Connor said.
There are a few fairly reliable treatments for flu sufferers, according to O'Connor.
"You can obviously get immunized. It's not 100 per cent effective, but it's the best that we have at the moment," he said.
For the unfortunate ones who have already contracted the flu, O'Connor said he sometimes recommends an antiviral medication sold under the name Tamiflu.
"You should try and take it within the first 48 hours of the symptom onset for it to be most effective," he said.
While alcohol-based hand sanitizers can augment soap and water hand-washing, recent research suggests it is not a substitute, particularly in preventing the spread of the norovirus.
In a study of 161 long-term care facilities in the United States, norovirus outbreaks occurred six times more often in facilities where hand sanitizers were used as often or more often than soap and water hand-washing, according to research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
"We do rigorously want people to practise hand hygiene and we most recommend washing your hands frequently with soap and water," O'Connor said.
This year's flu outbreak comes on the heels of the province's attempt to mandate flu shots for all health-care workers who come into contact with patients at publicly funded facilities. Approximately 67 per cent of Vancouver Coastal Health workers got flu shots this winter, according to Anna Marie D'Angelo, media relations officer with VCH.
School absenteeism has not risen significantly in West or North Vancouver schools, according to communications reps from each school district.
"Most kids are well and at school," said Victoria Miles, communications manager with North Vancouver school district..