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At least five B.C. children died from influenza last month, as mortalities spike

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Aa patient receives an influenza vaccine in Mesquite, Texas, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. At least five children died in British Columbia from influenza last month alone, a rise that comes as an early season of respiratory illnesses adds strain to the beleaguered health-care system.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/LM Otero

VICTORIA — At least five children died last month in British Columbia from influenza as a rise of early season respiratory illnesses added strain to the beleaguered health-care system.

The figure marks a departure from the average of two to three annual flu deaths among children in the province between 2015 and 2019, data from the BC Coroners Service shows.

"Public health is monitoring the situation closely and is reminding people of the steps they can take to protect themselves, their children and their loved ones against the flu," the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said in a statement.

"It is important to know that death associated with influenza in previously healthy children continues to be rare."

The centre said it is aware of a sixth reported flu death among children and youth under 19, but it was not immediately clear why the sixth wasn't included in the coroners' figures. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the children who died included one who was younger than five years old, three who were between five and nine, and two adolescents who were between 15 and 19.

"Early findings indicate some of the children experienced secondary bacterial infections contributing to severe illness, which can be a complication of influenza," Henry said in a statement Thursday.

The deaths in British Columbia suggest figures could tick up across the country given the common challenges facing health systems this respiratory season. Alberta has also recorded the deaths of two children with influenza so far this season.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an average of five to six kids died per flu season across Canada, data collected from 12 hospitals across the country shows. 

The national data was collected between 2010 and 2019 by IMPACT, a national surveillance network administered by the Canadian Paediatric Association. It was included in a research paper published in March in "The Lancet Regional Health — Americas" journal that also found no deaths from the flu among children in either 2020 or 2021. 

No one from either IMPACT or the B.C. Centre for Disease Control was immediately available for an interview.

On Monday, Henry said that after two years of low flu rates, mostly due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the province is seeing a "dramatic increase" in illness and it arrived sooner than normal. 

She urged parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu. 

On Thursday, British Columbia's Health Ministry announced a "blitz" of walk-in flu clinics that will open across the province Friday through Sunday. Flu vaccines are free to all kids aged six months and older in B.C.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control said getting the shot is particularly important for those at risk of severe outcomes, including those with chronic medical conditions like heart, lung, kidney or liver disorders and diseases, those with conditions that cause difficulty breathing or swallowing, those who need to take Aspirin for long periods of time and those who are very obese. 

The BC Coroners Service said its data is preliminary and subject to change while investigations are completed.

The cases include those where influenza was identified as an immediate, pre-existing or underlying cause of death, or as a significant condition. 

Henry said updates on pediatric influenza-related deaths will be posted weekly as part of the respiratory surveillance summaries on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2022.

The Canadian Press