What's new with flu?

Here's the scoop on that not-so-welcome annual visitor

Pandemic panic over H1N1 is officially over, according to the World Health Organization. But the bug is expected to be back as one of the seasonal flu viruses that start showing up when chilly days set in. Here’s what you need to know to help your family fend off flu this winter.

Did H1N1 surpass seasonal flu in 2009/10? Yes, it was the most prevalent flu virus circulating last year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The good news? Because so many Canadians got the H1N1 shot, overall flu activity was lower than usual by the end of the season. But because the virus is still making the rounds, this fall’s seasonal flu vaccine will also provide protection against H1N1.

Will last year’s H1N1 shot protect my child this year? Probably, since the virus hasn’t changed, but researchers are still trying to establish just how long the protection from the shot lasts.

Who, in particular, should get the seasonal flu vaccine? The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended everyone over six months of age roll up their sleeves, particularly people who are at highest risk of serious illness (including children younger than 24 months, those with respiratory problems — like some former preemies — and expectant moms) and their close contacts, says Joanne Embree, a Canadian Paediatric Society spokesperson and head of infectious disease at Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.
Why not kids under six months? The vaccine doesn’t work in children this age because they have immune systems that are too immature to respond appropriately.

Can my child end up catching the flu from the shot? No. “The vaccine doesn’t contain live virus,” Embree explains. The shot is 70 to 90 percent effective (it varies from year to year), but it may not take full effect for 10 days , so kids can still catch flu after being immunized. And the flu jab doesn’t protect against dozens of other respiratory viruses that can mimic influenza.

Besides vaccinating, how else can I protect my kids? Practise good flu etiquette: Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow; wash or sanitize your hands after wiping noses; and stay home when you’re sick. And teach your kids to do the same. Bonus: This helps keep other bugs at bay too!

Didn’t the seasonal flu shot make people more susceptible to H1N1? Maybe. In three Canadian studies, infection rates were higher among people who had been vaccinated against seasonal flu, though these people were no likelier to get seriously ill than those who’d skipped the shot. Mind you, research in other countries found no such connection, and immunizing against both diseases at the same time should eliminate any risk that might have been due to last year’s stand-alone seasonal vaccine.

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