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Medical experts split on severity of next flu season

Last Updated May 11, 2021 at 12:37 pm PDT

A person gets a shot during a flu vaccine program in Calgary on Oct. 26, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Some U.S. scientists say population immunity to flu is low due to low case count last winter

Vancouver infectious diseases expert says flu scarcity last winter could be a positive next season

Last year's shots could be an excellent guide for next flu season, says expert

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Next winter’s flu season could be a bad one, according to some U.S. scientists who think immunity took a hit after a virtual no-show for the virus last season. But a local infectious diseases expert isn’t worried about it.

The argument from a John Hopkins microbiologist is that population immunity to the flu is low because there were so few cases last winter, and that scarcity could make it hard to choose which strain vaccine makers should focus on this year.

“There could be strains circulating at a low number that could come to dominate. We worry about that normally in every flu season, but usually we have a much larger data set to choose from,” Dr. Andy Pekosz, a professor of microbiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told NBC.

But Dr. Brian Conway with the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre suggests that may be a positive.

“The virus probably won’t evolve as quickly as it normally does because it hasn’t circulated in the population at the level that it usually does. So, the likelihood of us getting the vaccine correct is more likely,” he explained.

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Conway believes that means last year’s shots will be an excellent guide for the next flu season.

“More people than usual got the flu shot [this year], so there was a level of immunity that was enhance that will carry over into next year,” he said.

He believes the public health measures — including physical distancing — that have been in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic are a big reason we didn’t see many flu cases in the winter.

“Although we will emerge from that, to some extent, I think some of the good habits that we learned to limit the transmission of respiratory viruses will persist and will serve to reduce the severity of the flu season, going forward,” he said.

Conway says even if the prevalence and severity of COVID-19 subsides, we probably won’t be shaking hands as much in the coming year.

“That’s one of the main ways in which the virus gets transmitted — the flu virus,” he said. “We’ll be conscious, also, of staying home if we’re sick.”