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CDC says B.C. flu surge is stabilizing after six kids die, but surgeon is alarmed

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia pediatric cardiac surgeon is calling for more transparency and urgency from public officials after the flu-related deaths of at least six children and youth in the province this season.
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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks in the press theatre at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, March 10, 2022. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says a deadly spike in acute respiratory illness is showing signs of stabilizing, after the flu-related deaths of at least six children and youth this season. Friday's update came a day after provincial health officer Henry said pediatric flu deaths would be included in its weekly updates. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia pediatric cardiac surgeon is calling for more transparency and urgency from public officials after the flu-related deaths of at least six children and youth in the province this season.

"Parents need more knowledge (because) knowledge is essential in an emergency. What we have is ignorance, and ignorance is deadly in this situation," Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi said in an interview Friday.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control said in a statement Friday that the deadly spike in acute respiratory illness is showing signs of stabilizing.

The centre reported influenza A was the most detected virus in B.C. last week, while wastewater tests indicate a slow increase in COVID-19 infections. 

It said that while test positivity remains high for both influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, the numbers have levelled off in the past week. 

Gandhi said the 24 per cent positivity rate that the centre is reporting for influenza A is still "incredibly high."

"Even if that positivity rate is the same week to week, which meets the definition of stability, it's stable in a very bad place," he said. "I don't think one can take any solace in those numbers."

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.

While the province is on track for a record number of people getting their flu shot this year, Dr. Penny Ballem with BC Vaccine Operations, said Monday that only 20 per cent of children under 11 and about 15 per cent of teens have been vaccinated.

The government has said it will be using its provincial health registry to contact parents in an attempt to increase that number.

Gandhi said that vaccinations are an important part of the solution, but the province should also be implementing more stringent measures, like mask mandates in schools and other public places. 

"I think the vaccination push is fine, but I think it's a little bit late and I think it doesn't come with the urgency that it needs to come with," he said.

"This is the March 2020 for kids, and it's worse than March 2020 was for the senior citizens," he said, referring to the dramatic COVID-19 death toll for seniors at the start of the pandemic. 

"Dead kids are dead kids (and) there's just nothing more horrific than a dead child."

Friday's update from the CDC comes a day after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said pediatric flu deaths would be included in the centre's weekly updates.

"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.

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

The recent flu deaths among children mark a departure from the average two to three recorded annually among children in the province between 2015 and 2019, data from the BC Coroners Service shows.

The six young people who died with influenza include one child under five, three aged five to nine, and two youths aged 15 to 19 years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2022.

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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