We have cared for infants and toddlers with such significant breathing difficulty that their whole body moves with every breath, their eyes are wide and staring and they cannot speak because they are so short of breath.

Influenza has hit communities in northern B.C. hard.

As a pediatrician at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. (UHNBC) in Prince George, I have seen the profound impact of influenza on children this season.

Typically respiratory viruses hit northern B.C. at least one month after the rest of B.C., and this has been the case for this year’s flu season.

Northern B.C. is truly in the thick of it now.

As of December 21, 2022, the Northern Health (NH) region had the highest ‘positivity rate’ for nasal swabs for Influenza A (40 per cent of all NH swabs were positive for Influenza A).

NH has also been experiencing the highest rate of pediatric presentations to emergency rooms (ERs) for “influenza-like illness.”

Almost 50 per cent of all ER assessments of children have been for this reason in recent weeks.

Physician colleagues who work in ER and family medicine tell me that for every child sick with the flu who is urgently referred to see a pediatrician, they have seen 30-40 other children with the same symptoms, although less severe.

The volume of children sick with the flu this year has been staggering.

UHNBC in Prince George is the only NH hospital with designated inpatient beds for infants and children.

This means that the children admitted to our pediatric ward come from all over the north.

Some have received care in small, rural hospitals or remote medical clinics for hours or even days before transport to Prince George could occur.

The rural clinicians provide excellent care, but are pushed well outside their comfort zone.

In Northern B.C., sick children depend on an overloaded pediatric patient transport system which is challenged by winter weather.

Allow me to paint a picture of what we are seeing on the pediatric ward at UHNBC.

We have cared for infants and toddlers with such significant breathing difficulty that their whole body moves with every breath, their eyes are wide and staring and they cannot speak because they are so short of breath.

We have admitted pre-school and early school-aged children who have had eight, nine or ten days of very high fever, have refused to eat solid food for days and have only managed to drink small amounts of fluids.

They are dehydrated, listless and look very unwell.

We have seen older children and teens with influenza and serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia or bloodstream infections; they need admission for IV antibiotics and fluids.

Some children have been so sick that transport to B.C. Children’s Hospital is needed.

These children and their families have spent the early part of their winter holidays in hospital.

The stress and worry experienced by the caregivers of these children cannot be overstated.

I know that Citizen readers are aware of the provincial campaign to encourage British Columbians to get their annual influenza vaccine.

What you may not realize is that the reason the flu vaccine is important this year is not simply to avoid the need for a couple of ‘sick days’ off work or from just feeling run down due to the flu.

Rather, it is my opinion as a pediatrician that getting as many northern B.C. residents vaccinated against influenza is essential in order to prevent serious cases of influenza in our region’s  children.

These serious illness are preventable!

The fact that there have been several deaths of children in B.C. related to influenza (more than in any other year in recent history, and more than in any other province this season), should be reason enough for everyone eligible for the influenza vaccine to go out and get vaccinated.

Some readers may feel that they do not ‘need’ the vaccine because they have already had the flu.

It is important to keep in mind that there are viruses other than influenza circulating right now which can also cause “influenza-like illnesses”.

Perhaps a different virus was the cause of the illness that has resolved so it is still important to get the influenza vaccine in this case.

It is even important for those who already had influenza (confirmed on a nasal swab) to get vaccinated.

All influenza cases in northern B.C. so far this season were Influenza A but we know Influenza B is coming to the north. The first few pediatric cases of influenza B have just been detected in the Lower Mainland.

The good news is that the influenza vaccine protects against both Influenza A and B.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control just announced that immunity provided by this year’s vaccine against the circulating variants is excellent.

Their preliminary findings report that the flu vaccine this year cut the risk of influenza illness by about half.

And for those who worry that it may be too late to bother with the influenza vaccine, please believe me when I say that it is  not.

We still have time to reduce the risk to the children of our community by encouraging friends, family members and colleagues to get their flu vaccines!

If you have been ambivalent about    getting the influenza vaccine in the past, this is the year to do it and now is the time.

That will be the best gift you can give your community this holiday season.

Dr. Kirsten Miller is a pediatrician in Prince George and the medical lead for Northern Health pediatrics.

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