The updated flu vaccine may work better than last year's did against the H3N2 strain but public health experts once again expect it to underperform.

Flu vaccine to underperform again

Epidemiologist expects less than ideal protection against resurgent H3N2 flu strain but better than 'zero' last year

There are signs the flu season may hit B.C. early and hard and public health officials are warning they expect the flu vaccine to again be less effective than they’d like.

The most dangerous influenza type for vulnerable people is the H3N2 strain that was dominant in last year’s severe flu season.

But because of a genetic mismatch, the vaccine provided last year was useless in warding off H3N2, according to B.C. Centre for Disease Control epidemiologist Dr. Danuta Skowronski.

That component of the vaccine was replaced on orders of the World Health Organization, but preliminary evidence suggests the new version will still not be a good match against H3N2, falling well short of the 60 to 70 per cent protection rates against other flu strains in most years.

“I believe it’s going to be better than last year – in other words I don’t think it’s going to be zero – but by how much, I can’t say,” Skowronski said.

She said there’s good reason to hope it may be 40 to 60 per cent effective overall, adding she continues to recommend the vaccine, particularly for those more vulnerable.

“If you are a high-risk person, especially with heart and lung conditions or elderly, even if you’re looking at vaccine protection of 30, 40 or 50 per cent, you’re still better off than if you’re unvaccinated.”

Flu vaccine will be widely available by November and may be offered sooner than that in high-risk settings like residential care homes.

Epidemiologists had expected H3N2 would be less prevalent this year, with more of a mix of H1N1 and influenza B strains also in circulation, making the mismatch less of a worry.

But Skowronski noted there have already been two H3N2 outbreaks in long-term care homes in B.C.’s Vancouver Coastal health region – one in the summer and another in late September.

“To have had outbreak activity already in the summer is very unusual,” she said. “We are monitoring that closely for the possibility of an early season.”

Apart from last year, B.C. hasn’t seen flu outbreaks this early since 2009.

Last year, with H3N2 widespread and the mismatched vaccine offering no defence, there were 175 outbreaks in long-term care homes.

That was the highest number in more than a decade and twice as many outbreaks as the previous peak year of 2012.

Skowronski acknowledged the mismatch problems threaten to erode public confidence in the flu vaccine but hopes vulnerable patients are not dissuaded.

“For me, it would be a double tragedy, frankly, if coming out of last season our high-risk people lost faith and did not get the vaccine.”

While influenza is a “miserable” illness, Skowronski said it’s not life-threatening to healthy people, for whom vaccination is still encouraged but a matter of personal preference.

About one-third of B.C. residents typically get the flu vaccine each year.

H3N2 vaccines have consistently underperformed in recent years.

Skowronski said more work is needed to try to solve the challenges of accurately gauging the vaccine’s fit against the virus in the lab, and in effectively reproducing a well-matched vaccine without losing its properties.

Also requiring more research, she said, is emerging evidence suggesting repeated use of the vaccine by a given patient diminishes its effectiveness for them in future years.

While the flu vaccine may not perform as well for someone who also received it the previous year as it would for a first-time user, Skowronski said, they’ll still be better off than unvaccinated people.

Her team is trying to recruit more B.C. doctors and nurses to help track the spread of flu strains this year and monitor the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine.

Just Posted

Unplowed Roads parody song destined to be a classic

Move over Weird Al, Island elementary students on the same level

Capitals drop two; Interior trip in the cards

Cowichan will face Penticton or Merritt in first round of playoffs

Drugs a top priority for North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP, notes quarterly report

Drugs a priority for RCMP, notes quarterly report

North Cowichan to pause all logging in forest reserve for 2019

Municipality expects decision to cause $150,000 shorfall this year

‘Riya was a dreamer’: Mother of slain 11-year-old Ontario girl heartbroken

Her father, Roopesh Rajkumar, 41, was arrested some 130 kilometres away

Coming up in Cowichan: Estuary fundraiser, landlord info and more

Chance for landlords to learn about their rights and responsibilities The Cowichan… Continue reading

Do you live with your partner? More and more Canadians don’t

Statistics Canada shows fewer couples live together than did a decade ago

B.C. child killer denied mandatory outings from psychiatric hospital

The B.C. Review Board decision kept things status quo for Allan Schoenborn

Searchers return to avalanche-prone peak in Vancouver to look for snowshoer

North Shore Rescue, Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog teams and personnel will be on Mt. Seymour

Market volatility, mortgages loom over upcoming earnings of Canada’s big banks

Central bank interest hikes have padded the banks’ net interest margins

Hearings into SNC-Lavalin affair start today, but not with Wilson-Raybould

She has repeatedly cited solicitor-client privilege to refuse all comment

VIDEO: 8 things you need to know about the 2019 B.C. budget

Surplus of $247 million with spending on children, affordability and infrastructure

B.C. pot giant Tilray to acquire hemp food company Manitoba Harvest for up to $419 million

Tilray will pay $150 million in cash and $127.5 million in stock.

Most Read