Your Health

Spanish Flu pandemic a reminder of influenza’s devastating power

Photo of returning soldiers at Union Station, 1919. Recently returned troops brought the deadly flu virus with them from the battlefields of Europe.
Source: Archives of Manitoba
Photo of Dr. Bunmi Fatoye. DR. BUNMI FATOYE
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, September 28, 2018

One hundred years ago this month, the “Spanish Flu” arrived in Winnipeg.

According to a report in The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, a train loaded with soldiers was heading west when it was discovered that some of them had become ill.

On Sept. 30, the train pulled into Winnipeg, and 23 soldiers were quickly moved to the I.O.D.E Hospital, which was quarantined. 

Until then, there had been no official reports of Spanish Flu in the city.

“No cases of the disease (with the exception of the soldiers) have been reported in Western Canada,” A. J. Douglas, the city’s health officer told the Tribune on Oct. 1. “The health department has not been notified of an outbreak of influenza, although physicians are watching closely for signs of the trouble.”

They wouldn’t have to wait long.

By Nov. 30 – just two months later – a story in the Tribune said that a total of 9,878 cases of the flu had been reported in Winnipeg, along with 649 deaths. It is estimated that the Spanish Flu killed over 50 million people around the world between 1918 and 1919.

Of course, the Spanish Flu pandemic was no ordinary case of influenza. A pandemic flu is a rare event that generally occurs with the emergence of a new virus that is substantially different from the seasonal viruses that are in circulation. Because people will have no immunity to the new virus, it is able to spread more rapidly than its seasonal counterpart. 

But while a pandemic flu can infect people on a massive scale, it is worth noting that the seasonal flu that comes and goes every year can also have an impact.

Last year, for example, there were more than 1,600 lab-confirmed cases of seasonal flu in Manitoba between Nov. 2017 and April 2018, with more than 500 people (or 30 per cent of confirmed cases) being hospitalized. In addition, there were 46 deaths with lab-confirmed influenza. These numbers may pale in comparison to those racked up by the Spanish Flu, but they are still concerning.

Needless to say, we are in a better position to reduce the impact of flu today than we were 100 years ago. And we could reduce the numbers of those affected by seasonal flu even further, if we all took the precautions necessary to prevent it from spreading.

That starts with getting immunized. It is no exaggeration to say that the citizens of Winnipeg around1918 would have given anything for the chance to be vaccinated against the flu, yet the percentage of Winnipeg residents who received the seasonal influenza vaccine over the last few years has been about 22 per cent annually. This means, one in five individuals receive the vaccine.

So, who should get vaccinated?

With the exception of those with contraindications to the vaccine, everyone should get the vaccine, especially those in high risk groups such as the elderly over 65 years of age, children under five years of age, individuals with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, household contacts and health-care providers.  

Why should they get vaccinated?

Research tells us that the influenza vaccine is our best and safest defense against the virus. The vaccine is also known to reduce complications and severe illness such as pneumonia and worsening of existing heart and lung diseases, all of which can be life threatening in those who are infected. And, of course, the more people who get vaccinated, the less likely the virus will spread and infect large numbers of people in a given population.

Some people hesitate to get a flu shot because they aren’t sure it will be 100 per cent effective. While this is true of flu vaccines, research suggests that they are 50 to 70 per cent effective when the circulating virus matches the vaccine strain. Unfortunately, we cannot know how effective this year’s vaccine will be until the flu season is over.

Now that the season is upon us, what are you going to do? There is no guarantee that you will not get the flu. We all know of someone who is at high risk of becoming infected and needs to be protected. So why not get immunized?

The vaccine will be available for free starting in October from your primary health-care provider, local pharmacy or walk-in clinics including Walk In Connected Care. For more information, visit call Health Links – Info Santé at 204-788-8200.

Dr. Bunmi Fatoye is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, September 28, 2018.

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