A pediatrician working with the Northern Health authority is the latest to warn the public over the surge of flu infections among children and youth, an issue plaguing most of B.C. this fall and winter.

Dr. Kirsten Miller, the medical lead for the authority's child and youth health program, says the 12-bed pediatric ward of University Hospital of Northern British Columbia (UHNBC) in Prince George — the medical services hub for the northern region — is operating at full capacity, due to what she describes as an unusual increase of kids suffering respiratory illnesses.

"Every year, we'll see one or two kids who are quite sick with a respiratory illness," Miller told guest host Brady Strachan on CBC's Radio West. "But the volume this year is beyond anything I've seen — and I would say the severity is pretty significant, too."

"I've been practicing pediatrics in Prince George for 18 years, and I have never seen a season like this where the kids have been having so much difficulty breathing [due to] viral illnesses in such high volumes."

Pediatric flu cases across B.C.

Miller's warning comes at a time when pediatric hospitals across the province and Canada have seen an increase of patients coping with respiratory viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza.

It's a situation that some medical experts attribute to the return to pre-pandemic levels of human interactions after two years of physical distancing and masking slowed down the spread of some diseases.

"Many of the children that are quite small haven't really had the same exposure to all of the routine colds and flus that other kids may have seen over the years," Miller said.

According to numbers from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), flu cases started spiking around Nov. 13. The latest data from the week of Nov. 20 shows that out of 169 patients at B.C. Children's Hospital with respiratory viruses, 71 had influenza, 43 had RSV, and 17 tested positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this month the B.C. Coroners Service confirmed five influenza-related deaths in children in November, a marked increase from previous years.

Historical data provided by B.C. Coroners Service shows that between 2015 and 2019, B.C. recorded two to three influenza-related deaths in people aged 18 or younger every year. In 2020, the province recorded one death, while none were recorded in 2021.

Get vaccinated

Amid the severity of respiratory illnesses, health officials in B.C. have been urging parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu.

Early this month, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said B.C. is seeing a "dramatic increase" in cases of influenza A, a strain which can cause severe illness in children.

A hand holds a vaccine bottle.
Dr. Miller says this is the time for parents to get their kids vaccinated against flu. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

On Friday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said preliminary findings show that the flu vaccine has cut the risk of influenza illness by about half during this season's early and ongoing influenza A epidemic.

"Vaccines are available for everyone six months and older in B.C. and these preliminary findings show how vaccination remains our best defence against respiratory illnesses," said B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix in a release.

"By getting vaccinated against influenza, you can help protect our public health system and the young children and elderly people around you."

Miller agrees, and asks parents across the northern region to get their kids vaccinated.

"I hear from so many parents that they said 'it just isn't something that we do every year,' and I would say, 'this is the year to do it — no question.'"

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