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Last winter saw a record number of Manitobans get vaccinated for seasonal influenza. Last winter also had the highest number of deaths by lab-confirmed flu in three years, at 46. But don't let that discourage you from getting a flu shot.

Dr. Tim Hilderman, Manitoba Health medical officer of health, vaccines, cautions people about reading too much into mortality rates when it comes to the flu, saying ICU admissions and hospitalizations are a better metric. Still, last winter, 35 people were admitted into intensive care units, and there were 505 total hospitalizations due to influenza during the 2017/18 season -- the highest since 2009/10.

So how's that, if more people were vaccinated than ever before?

For one, Dr. Hilderman says hospitalization and death related to flu has more to do with virus characteristics than the vaccine.

"How aggressive it is in any given year, as opposed to vaccine effects."

And, Dr. Hilderman says, with only about 20 per cent of Manitobans getting the flu vaccine each year, a slight increase (22.5 per cent last year -- 320,000 doses administered) isn't going to have much of an affect on hospitalization rates. Dr. Hilderman says there's no question we would have fewer hospitalizations due to flu if there were a significant increase in the number of people immunized. He says the biggest net benefit would be for people at the highest risk, like people over 65 or under 5.

Flu vaccines protect against specific strains of flu, and won't necessarily protect you from other strains. The strains included in any seasonal flu vaccine are based on what strains are being seen around the world.

As the Government of Canada puts it: "The antigenic characteristics of circulating influenza virus strains provide the basis for selecting the strains included in each year's vaccine."

Dr. Hilderman says the Southern Hemisphere tends to be a predictor of what we see in Canada, but it isn't 100 per cent accurate. He says the Southern Hemisphere has seen an H1N1-dominant year, which he says is a normal, seasonal flu strain at this point. Last year we were dealing with H3N2, which Dr. Hilderman says is harder to vaccinate against and is generally worse in terms of mortality.

According to the Government of Canada, the World Health Organization generally chooses flu vaccine characteristics more than six months ahead of time to give manufacturers time to produce the vaccines.

A flu shot can't give you the flu.

"The inactivated vaccines as well as the flu mist, or the live attenuated vaccine, are made from either killed or weakened versions of the virus, so not capable of producing influenza," says Dr. Hilderman.

Dr. Hilderman says, for those who get vaccinated and then get the flu soon after, often they were already incubating the disease or they get exposed to the virus before the vaccine can fully take effect. Dr. Hilderman says peak protection takes about two weeks.

The province kicked off its annual influenza immunization campaign at Morden Drugstore yesterday.

"Getting the flu vaccine is important for the health of all Manitobans, but especially for those at increased risk of serious illness from the flu, their caregivers, and close family and friends, says Health minister Camerson Friesen in a release. "Every Manitoban knows an infant, a senior, someone with diabetes or asthma, or someone seeking treatment for cancer. Because of this, I encourage Manitobans to protect themselves, as well as others, by getting their no-charge flu immunization this fall."

The seasonal flu vaccine is available free of charge to all Manitobans aged six months and older. It is available at public health offices, nursing stations, doctors' offices, and Access Centres. Regional health authorities will also soon begin immunization clinics.

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