Dr. Karl Kabasele HQ

DIRTY DOGS, HEALTHY BABIES

Pet lovers probably don’t need any additional encouragement to keep their furry friends around.  But those who are less inclined to take on the responsibility and deal with the mess that pets can bring into your home may be interested in a new study out of Finland that is suggesting that having pets can help to make your children healthier!

Researchers followed a small cohort of 397 children and they found that in the first year of life, babies who grew up in an environment with a dog or cat were sick less often with colds.

It’s not clear why, but dog ownership was found to have more of a protective effect than cat ownership - in fact, even after adjusting for confounding factors, the children with dogs in the home had fewer ear infections and had less need to take antibiotics. 

 Interestingly, when researchers took a closer look at the amount of time the dogs spent in the home, they found that the healthiest children were those who lived in homes where the dog was only inside the home temporarily during the day. 

This may be because these part-time outside dogs brought more dirt into the home, which would add weight to the theory that kids need to be exposed to dirt and germs in order to help to mature their immune systems.  Further study would be necessary to confirm this, but it certainly not a new idea – according to this “Hygiene Theory”, kids who grow up in too clean an environment don’t give their immune systems a proper workout and so those kids may be likely to get sicker or develop allergies.

For a look at the full Finnish study on pets and babies, see: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/07/03/peds.2011-2825.full.pdf

[gratuitous video of cute baby and dog courtesy of msjadensdad on YouTube]

TOO GRAPHIC FOR TV?  THE ANTI SMOKING AD CAMPAIGN FROM THE CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

I just saw this rather disturbing but compelling ad on television this week.  It’s part of an ad campaign designed to discourage smoking by demonstrating the consequences that you might not have thought of, specifically the risk of throat cancer that could lead to removal of the voicebox and the creation of a hole in the neck for breathing.

An ad like this certainly grabs your attention, but how effective are these ads?  It’s difficult to measure effectiveness but it appears that mass media campaigns, in conjunction with laws, taxation, and other communication strategies have helped to gradually reduce smoking rates in the U.S. and Canada.

To see more of the anti-smoking ads in the series as well as other health-promotional videos, see: http://www.youtube.com/user/CDCStreamingHealth

THE SALTY LITTLE LIE THAT THE FAST FOOD INDUSTRY HAS BEEN FEEDING YOU
We know that one of the reasons that fast food can be detrimental to our health is because many of the items on the menu are high in salt, and this can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.  On the question of salt, some in the food industry have said that technical factors are a barrier to reducing salt content in foods.  But researchers in 6 countries (including Canada and the U.S.) say that they have found PROOF that it IS possible to create fast foods with a lower salt content.
In the study, salt content in more than 2000 food items from 6 companies in 6 countries were analyzed, based on the companies’ own published nutritional information.  There was great variation in the salt levels of these foods, including differences between similar food items between companies and countries. 
For example, the average level of salt in chicken products in the UK was significantly lower than those in the US.  Assuming the products studied were similar, it would appear that any technical barriers to lessening salt in foods CAN be overcome.
Researchers also suggest that the difference reflect greater efforts in the UK for the food industry to work with government to limit salt in foods, and this could be a model that could work in other countries. 
But perhaps the most important thing to take from this research is that most fast food companies do provide nutritional information about their products so whether that information is posted in the restaurant or you have to do a little digging on the internet, your best strategy is to educate yourself about what’s in your food and make your dietary choices accordingly.
By the way, to give you a sense of how little salt we need in a day, a teaspoon of salt contains about 6 grams of salt.  That equals 2400mg of sodium, which is just a little more than the maximum recommended daily amount!  
But it’s not the salt from the shaker that you add at the table that’s the problem, and it’s not the salt you add to food when you’re cooking – the vast majority of sodium in your diet, by far, comes hidden in processed foods.
For a comprehensive strategy on how to reduce your salt intake, see: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/salt/tasting-success-with-cutting-salt/index.html
(photo of sea salt by Tricia Thompson)

THE SALTY LITTLE LIE THAT THE FAST FOOD INDUSTRY HAS BEEN FEEDING YOU

We know that one of the reasons that fast food can be detrimental to our health is because many of the items on the menu are high in salt, and this can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.  On the question of salt, some in the food industry have said that technical factors are a barrier to reducing salt content in foods.  But researchers in 6 countries (including Canada and the U.S.) say that they have found PROOF that it IS possible to create fast foods with a lower salt content.

In the study, salt content in more than 2000 food items from 6 companies in 6 countries were analyzed, based on the companies’ own published nutritional information.  There was great variation in the salt levels of these foods, including differences between similar food items between companies and countries. 

For example, the average level of salt in chicken products in the UK was significantly lower than those in the US.  Assuming the products studied were similar, it would appear that any technical barriers to lessening salt in foods CAN be overcome.

Researchers also suggest that the difference reflect greater efforts in the UK for the food industry to work with government to limit salt in foods, and this could be a model that could work in other countries

But perhaps the most important thing to take from this research is that most fast food companies do provide nutritional information about their products so whether that information is posted in the restaurant or you have to do a little digging on the internet, your best strategy is to educate yourself about what’s in your food and make your dietary choices accordingly.

By the way, to give you a sense of how little salt we need in a day, a teaspoon of salt contains about 6 grams of salt.  That equals 2400mg of sodium, which is just a little more than the maximum recommended daily amount! 

But it’s not the salt from the shaker that you add at the table that’s the problem, and it’s not the salt you add to food when you’re cooking – the vast majority of sodium in your diet, by far, comes hidden in processed foods.

For a comprehensive strategy on how to reduce your salt intake, see: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/salt/tasting-success-with-cutting-salt/index.html

(photo of sea salt by Tricia Thompson)

 HEALTH LITERACY
March 18, 2012 
As a physician, one of my greatest frustrations is when I prescribe a treatment that I know is safe and effective, and the patient takes it incorrectly.  The scrawl of a doctor’s prescription may be difficult to read because of the poor handwriting, or because of the jargon and shorthand we use – but each prescription has a very specific set of instructions designed to address your health problem.  The problem is, if you don’t follow the instructions precisely, you don’t get the full benefit of the treatment.  
 
There are lots of reasons for what doctors call “non-compliance” with treatment – it’s often not the patient’s fault actually.  For example sometimes the doctor does not explain clearly enough how to take a medication.  Doctors certainly need to do a better job at communicating complex information in a way that patients can understand.  It’s also possible that the patient doesn’t have the health literacy skills to fully understand and act on their doctor’s advice.
  
Health literacy is defined as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make basic health decisions". A new study in the British Medical Journal found that about 1/3 of British adults over age 52 that they studied did not have good health literacy.  Researchers tested the understanding of the volunteers when given simple instructions on how to take a medication like aspirin.  Those with the poorest health literacy were found to have an increased risk of dying from all causes, when compared with those with the best health literacy.
 
You can improve your health literacy by reading health information from reputable sources – ask your doctor to get you started.  And to make sure you get all the right information when you go see your doctor, make a list of your symptoms or questions before you go the doctor’s office, make notes as you talk with your doctor, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or say you don’t understand.  And if you need help, bring a trusted family member or friend with you to take notes and advocate for you as necessary.
For some tips on improving your health literacy, see: http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/cc/cc090710.htm


HEALTH LITERACY

March 18, 2012 

As a physician, one of my greatest frustrations is when I prescribe a treatment that I know is safe and effective, and the patient takes it incorrectly The scrawl of a doctor’s prescription may be difficult to read because of the poor handwriting, or because of the jargon and shorthand we use – but each prescription has a very specific set of instructions designed to address your health problem The problem is, if you don’t follow the instructions precisely, you don’t get the full benefit of the treatment 

 

There are lots of reasons for what doctors call “non-compliance” with treatment – it’s often not the patient’s fault actually.  For example sometimes the doctor does not explain clearly enough how to take a medication.  Doctors certainly need to do a better job at communicating complex information in a way that patients can understand.  It’s also possible that the patient doesn’t have the health literacy skills to fully understand and act on their doctor’s advice.

  

Health literacy is defined as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make basic health decisions". A new study in the British Medical Journal found that about 1/3 of British adults over age 52 that they studied did not have good health literacy Researchers tested the understanding of the volunteers when given simple instructions on how to take a medication like aspirin.  Those with the poorest health literacy were found to have an increased risk of dying from all causes, when compared with those with the best health literacy.

 

You can improve your health literacy by reading health information from reputable sources – ask your doctor to get you started.  And to make sure you get all the right information when you go see your doctor, make a list of your symptoms or questions before you go the doctor’s office, make notes as you talk with your doctor, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or say you don’t understand.  And if you need help, bring a trusted family member or friend with you to take notes and advocate for you as necessary.

For some tips on improving your health literacy, see: http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/cc/cc090710.htm

WHAT KIND OF ALLERGY SEASON WILL WE GET?
March 17, 2012
You man be wondering how the unusually mild weather this winter will impact the coming allergy season.  Well the relationship between weather and allergy season is fascinatingly complex.  I spoke to meteorologist Nick Czernkovich and he says that the first part of allergy season is generally caused by tree pollen, and trees produce and distribute more pollen during stretches of hot, dry conditions (and a deep freeze along the way will stop trees from producing pollen).  Rainy conditions in the spring tend to wash the tree pollen out of the air, but the flip-side is that rainy conditions in the spring and early summer can lead to higher levels of pollen from grass and weeds later in the season.
The bottom line - it’s difficult to predict how the allergy season will play itself out, so your best bet is to monitor reports of pollen counts if they are available in your area.
What can allergy sufferers do to minimize their suffering?
Dealing with seasonal allergies to airborne allergens like pollen, dust and mold generally requires a 3-part strategy:
 
First and foremost, identify what you’re allergic to
Try to avoid those triggers to prevent allergic symptoms
Control your allergy symptoms with appropriate medications
 
Some simple things to do to avoid allergens include: stay inside when pollen counts are high; get an air conditioner and keep windows closed; don’t hang laundry outside, it can gather pollen; change clothes and shower when you get home to minimize pollen in your home; remember that pets can bring pollen into the home.
In terms of medical treatments, you may choose medications to reduce symptoms, including 1) over the counter or prescription antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays or eye drops; 2) immunotherapy (allergy shots); and 3) for severe allergic reactions, you should carry injectable epinephrine (for food allergies) 
What effect can this have on people who have asthma?
The same substances that trigger allergies (e.g. pollen, dust, mold) can also trigger asthma in some people.  Just as with allergies, people with asthma should learn what triggers them, and do their best to avoid those triggers.  Some treatments, like allergy shots, can help both allergies and asthma if you suffer from both. 
But remember, asthma is an inflammatory condition - talk to your doctor about the best medications to keep the inflammation in your lungs under control, as well as the best rescue medication for when you’re having an attack.
For a detailed guide to managing airborne allergens, see: http://bit.ly/wSLlJW

WHAT KIND OF ALLERGY SEASON WILL WE GET?

March 17, 2012

You man be wondering how the unusually mild weather this winter will impact the coming allergy season.  Well the relationship between weather and allergy season is fascinatingly complex.  I spoke to meteorologist Nick Czernkovich and he says that the first part of allergy season is generally caused by tree pollen, and trees produce and distribute more pollen during stretches of hot, dry conditions (and a deep freeze along the way will stop trees from producing pollen).  Rainy conditions in the spring tend to wash the tree pollen out of the air, but the flip-side is that rainy conditions in the spring and early summer can lead to higher levels of pollen from grass and weeds later in the season.

The bottom line - it’s difficult to predict how the allergy season will play itself out, so your best bet is to monitor reports of pollen counts if they are available in your area.

What can allergy sufferers do to minimize their suffering?

Dealing with seasonal allergies to airborne allergens like pollen, dust and mold generally requires a 3-part strategy:

 

  1. First and foremost, identify what you’re allergic to
  2. Try to avoid those triggers to prevent allergic symptoms
  3. Control your allergy symptoms with appropriate medications

 

Some simple things to do to avoid allergens include: stay inside when pollen counts are high; get an air conditioner and keep windows closed; don’t hang laundry outside, it can gather pollen; change clothes and shower when you get home to minimize pollen in your home; remember that pets can bring pollen into the home.

In terms of medical treatments, you may choose medications to reduce symptoms, including 1) over the counter or prescription antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays or eye drops; 2) immunotherapy (allergy shots); and 3) for severe allergic reactions, you should carry injectable epinephrine (for food allergies) 

What effect can this have on people who have asthma?

The same substances that trigger allergies (e.g. pollen, dust, mold) can also trigger asthma in some people.  Just as with allergies, people with asthma should learn what triggers them, and do their best to avoid those triggers.  Some treatments, like allergy shots, can help both allergies and asthma if you suffer from both.

But remember, asthma is an inflammatory condition - talk to your doctor about the best medications to keep the inflammation in your lungs under control, as well as the best rescue medication for when you’re having an attack.

For a detailed guide to managing airborne allergens, see: http://bit.ly/wSLlJW

TRANSITION TO DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME – HEALTH RISKS
Losing that extra hour of sleep when we spring the clocks forward usually means an hour less of sleep.  This wouldn’t seem like such a big deal except that as a society we’re already pretty sleep deprived to begin with.  This might be the reason that studies have shown possible health risks associated with the time change.  Even though Daylight Saving Time (DST) is only an hour’s difference, it might represent the tipping point where the sleep deficit becomes too much.
Perhaps the most serious potential health risk from the change in time was identified in a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, published in 2008.  It found a 5% increase in heart attacks during the week after DST begins.  Researchers attribute this to the lost hour of sleep (interestingly when we gain the hour back in the fall, there’s a slight decrease in heart attack risk on the Monday after DST ends).  This change in heart attack risk makes sense from a physiological perspective because in the longer term sleep deprivation appears to raise blood pressure, increase the amount of inflammatory factors in the blood, and augment the overall level of neurologic arousal which may contribute to heart attack. This underscores the importance of sleep in general for cardiovascular health.
Although the research evidence is mixed, there is also reason to believe that the risk of motor vehicle accidents may also slightly increase when DST begins.  This may be because of the loss of sleep – sleep deprivation can slow your reaction time and impair your concentration.  It may also be because of less sunlight during the morning commute making visibility poorer.
Despite these potential health risks the time change can actually help us to improve our safety.  The time of year when we turn the clocks ahead (or behind) is the perfect time to make sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working well and have fresh batteries.  You can also use the time to check all of the safety features of your home and vehicle.
And to reduce some of these risks and improve your overall health, getting good sleep year-round is a good strategy.  
For some simple behavioral techniques to get better or more sleep, see: http://www.umm.edu/sleep/sleep_hyg.htm

TRANSITION TO DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME – HEALTH RISKS

Losing that extra hour of sleep when we spring the clocks forward usually means an hour less of sleep.  This wouldn’t seem like such a big deal except that as a society we’re already pretty sleep deprived to begin with.  This might be the reason that studies have shown possible health risks associated with the time change.  Even though Daylight Saving Time (DST) is only an hour’s difference, it might represent the tipping point where the sleep deficit becomes too much.

Perhaps the most serious potential health risk from the change in time was identified in a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, published in 2008.  It found a 5% increase in heart attacks during the week after DST begins.  Researchers attribute this to the lost hour of sleep (interestingly when we gain the hour back in the fall, there’s a slight decrease in heart attack risk on the Monday after DST ends).  This change in heart attack risk makes sense from a physiological perspective because in the longer term sleep deprivation appears to raise blood pressure, increase the amount of inflammatory factors in the blood, and augment the overall level of neurologic arousal which may contribute to heart attack. This underscores the importance of sleep in general for cardiovascular health.

Although the research evidence is mixed, there is also reason to believe that the risk of motor vehicle accidents may also slightly increase when DST begins.  This may be because of the loss of sleep – sleep deprivation can slow your reaction time and impair your concentration.  It may also be because of less sunlight during the morning commute making visibility poorer.

Despite these potential health risks the time change can actually help us to improve our safety.  The time of year when we turn the clocks ahead (or behind) is the perfect time to make sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working well and have fresh batteries.  You can also use the time to check all of the safety features of your home and vehicle.

And to reduce some of these risks and improve your overall health, getting good sleep year-round is a good strategy

For some simple behavioral techniques to get better or more sleep, see: http://www.umm.edu/sleep/sleep_hyg.htm

PAP TEST HAS BENEFITS, EVEN WHEN NOT DONE REGULARLY
(but having them regularly is best!)
A new study in the British Medical Journal is confirming that regular Pap smears save women’s lives from cancer of the cervix.  The study, led by a researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden, took a novel approach, calculating the chances of a woman having her cervical cancer being cured by detecting it early through Pap testing.
The study looked at more than 1200 Swedish women with cervical cancer and found that those who had their cancer detected by a Pap test had a 92% chance of being cured of their cancer.  On the other hand, women who had NOT had Pap tests, and whose cervical cancer was diagnosed because of symptoms had only a 66% chance of cure.  For the purposes of the study, cure was defined as having the same likelihood of dying as people in the general population.
Two more interesting points from the study – a woman whose cervical cancer was found by a Pap test had a better chance of survival whether or not she was in the habit of getting Pap smears regularly.  And conversely, those women who were in the habit of getting regular Pap tests were more likely to be cured even if their cervical cancer was detected in between Pap tests, because of the presence of symptoms.
All women should get regular Pap tests from the time they become sexually active or by age 21, whichever is earliest, all the way to age 70, but you should talk to your doctor about your own level of risk of cervical cancer and how often you should be tested.  And remember that the HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to prevent cervical cancer, but even if you get the shot you’ll still need regular Pap tests.
For a look at the benefits and risks of Pap tests, see: http://bit.ly/AbvCtx

PAP TEST HAS BENEFITS, EVEN WHEN NOT DONE REGULARLY

(but having them regularly is best!)

A new study in the British Medical Journal is confirming that regular Pap smears save women’s lives from cancer of the cervix.  The study, led by a researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden, took a novel approach, calculating the chances of a woman having her cervical cancer being cured by detecting it early through Pap testing.

The study looked at more than 1200 Swedish women with cervical cancer and found that those who had their cancer detected by a Pap test had a 92% chance of being cured of their cancer.  On the other hand, women who had NOT had Pap tests, and whose cervical cancer was diagnosed because of symptoms had only a 66% chance of cure.  For the purposes of the study, cure was defined as having the same likelihood of dying as people in the general population.

Two more interesting points from the study – a woman whose cervical cancer was found by a Pap test had a better chance of survival whether or not she was in the habit of getting Pap smears regularly.  And conversely, those women who were in the habit of getting regular Pap tests were more likely to be cured even if their cervical cancer was detected in between Pap tests, because of the presence of symptoms.

All women should get regular Pap tests from the time they become sexually active or by age 21, whichever is earliest, all the way to age 70, but you should talk to your doctor about your own level of risk of cervical cancer and how often you should be tested.  And remember that the HPV vaccine is a safe and effective way to prevent cervical cancer, but even if you get the shot you’ll still need regular Pap tests.

For a look at the benefits and risks of Pap tests, see: http://bit.ly/AbvCtx


COLONOSCOPY CAN SAVE LIVES
A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine is finally giving us some proof of what we’ve long suspected – having a colonoscopy can save your life.  The procedure involves a doctor examining the inside of your colon (a.k.a. large intestine) with a camera mounted on a long, flexible tube inserted through the rectum.  The purpose is to look for changes in the lining of the colon suggestive of cancer, especially growths called polyps that may be an early sign of cancer.  If a polyp is found the doctor can remove it during the colonoscopy procedure.
Previous research has shown that colonoscopy reduces the risk of getting colon cancer because of the removal of pre-cancerous growths.  The question answered by the new research is whether removing polyps makes a difference in how long a person lives.  The answer is yes – researchers found that removing polyps during colonoscopy can reduce the risk of death from colon cancer by 50%.
A major question that still remains to be answered is whether every person should have a colonoscopy at some point in their life.  The current recommendations on screening for colon cancer in the general population of people at low risk are variable, depending on who you ask.  Some U.S. guidelines call for every person to have one colonoscopy procedure by age 50.  In Canada, the consensus is that every person by age 50 should have a test called the Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) which checks a stool sample for traces of blood not visible to the eye.  Evidence of blood in the stool can suggest that there may be cancer present in the colon.  
If the FOBT is positive or if you have risk factors for colon cancer, your doctor will likely order further investigations with a colonoscopy, a sigmoidoscopy (using a camera to examine part of the colon), and/or an x-ray of the colon using barium or other contrast media to highlight suspicious lesions.
For an overview of risk factors for colon cancer, and how to minimize that risk see: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/colorectal-eng.php
(photo of polyp in colon taken during colonoscopy courtesy J. Guntau)

COLONOSCOPY CAN SAVE LIVES

A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine is finally giving us some proof of what we’ve long suspected – having a colonoscopy can save your life.  The procedure involves a doctor examining the inside of your colon (a.k.a. large intestine) with a camera mounted on a long, flexible tube inserted through the rectum.  The purpose is to look for changes in the lining of the colon suggestive of cancer, especially growths called polyps that may be an early sign of cancer.  If a polyp is found the doctor can remove it during the colonoscopy procedure.

Previous research has shown that colonoscopy reduces the risk of getting colon cancer because of the removal of pre-cancerous growths.  The question answered by the new research is whether removing polyps makes a difference in how long a person lives.  The answer is yes – researchers found that removing polyps during colonoscopy can reduce the risk of death from colon cancer by 50%.

A major question that still remains to be answered is whether every person should have a colonoscopy at some point in their life.  The current recommendations on screening for colon cancer in the general population of people at low risk are variable, depending on who you ask.  Some U.S. guidelines call for every person to have one colonoscopy procedure by age 50.  In Canada, the consensus is that every person by age 50 should have a test called the Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) which checks a stool sample for traces of blood not visible to the eye.  Evidence of blood in the stool can suggest that there may be cancer present in the colon. 

If the FOBT is positive or if you have risk factors for colon cancer, your doctor will likely order further investigations with a colonoscopy, a sigmoidoscopy (using a camera to examine part of the colon), and/or an x-ray of the colon using barium or other contrast media to highlight suspicious lesions.

For an overview of risk factors for colon cancer, and how to minimize that risk see: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/colorectal-eng.php

(photo of polyp in colon taken during colonoscopy courtesy J. Guntau)

MILD FLU SEASON THUS FAR (BUT THE VIRUS IS STILL SPREADING!)
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, we have had a relatively uneventful flu season across the country to date.  The rate of people going to the doctor for flu-like symptoms has been mostly below the average of the past five years, and we are certainly seeing less flu activity than the huge upswing during the pandemic H1N1 flu year of 2009 and 2010.
It’s difficult to know exactly why the influenza virus has been relatively quiet so far.  It may be because many people are immune to the strains that are circulating, either because they’ve gotten their flu shots this year, or because so many people got sick during the flu pandemic and are now immune.  Another contributing factor may be the fact that some parts of the country have had a mild winter – the flu virus prefers cold, dry weather.  But it’s also possible that there is more flu out there than we know because it simply isn’t always reported to authorities.
Perhaps the best news is that the strains of flu that are circulating closely resemble the strains that this season’s flu shot will cover.  And it’s not too late to get your flu shot – keep in mind that just because the flu season has been quiet thus far, it’s impossible to predict whether it could get worse in the coming months.  Flu season can continue well into March or April.  Your best defense against getting sick is to strengthen your immune system with the flu shot.
For more on the flu shot, see: http://www.toronto.ca/health/cdc/factsheets/influenza_factsheet.htm

MILD FLU SEASON THUS FAR (BUT THE VIRUS IS STILL SPREADING!)

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, we have had a relatively uneventful flu season across the country to date.  The rate of people going to the doctor for flu-like symptoms has been mostly below the average of the past five years, and we are certainly seeing less flu activity than the huge upswing during the pandemic H1N1 flu year of 2009 and 2010.

It’s difficult to know exactly why the influenza virus has been relatively quiet so far.  It may be because many people are immune to the strains that are circulating, either because they’ve gotten their flu shots this year, or because so many people got sick during the flu pandemic and are now immune.  Another contributing factor may be the fact that some parts of the country have had a mild winter – the flu virus prefers cold, dry weather.  But it’s also possible that there is more flu out there than we know because it simply isn’t always reported to authorities.

Perhaps the best news is that the strains of flu that are circulating closely resemble the strains that this season’s flu shot will cover.  And it’s not too late to get your flu shot – keep in mind that just because the flu season has been quiet thus far, it’s impossible to predict whether it could get worse in the coming months.  Flu season can continue well into March or April.  Your best defense against getting sick is to strengthen your immune system with the flu shot.

For more on the flu shot, see: http://www.toronto.ca/health/cdc/factsheets/influenza_factsheet.htm

I participated in this CBC Toronto story about the lack of flu activity this season.