FOUR years ago, H1N1 was a health threat of pandemic proportions, teaching us to cough into the crook of our arm and catapulting hand-sanitizer sales through the roof.
But in 2013-14, it's merely the most prevalent virus around in what appears, so far, to be a ho-hum Manitoba flu season.
The latest provincial figures show there have been just 39 lab-confirmed cases of influenza A (virtually all of them the H1N1 strain) and six confirmed cases of influenza B this season. Of those persons confirmed with the flu, eight have been hospitalized and one was admitted to intensive care. No one has died.
Dr. Tim Hilderman, Manitoba Health's medical lead for communicable disease control, said Monday that while H1N1 is the dominant strain this season, flu activity in Manitoba is well within the normal range. "It's early yet, but it doesn't look like we're going to come close to the level of activity we saw last year," he said, when the main influenza A strain was H3N2.
By the end of May last year, Manitoba had recorded 590 cases of influenza A and 111 cases of influenza B. Some 152 persons were hospitalized and 25 wound up in intensive care.
Nine people with lab-confirmed influenza died.
H1N1 conjures up memories of long wait lines for mass immunizations. More than 450,000 Manitobans got the flu shot in 2009-10. The virus struck in two waves, the second ending in mid-January 2010. All told, 2,665 Manitobans were diagnosed with it and 11 people died as a result.
But so far this season, far fewer people are getting sick, in part, because the population has acquired a measure of resistance to the virus since it first struck in 2009.
Protection against H1N1 has been included in seasonal flu vaccines since the pandemic year.
"There is certainly a higher level of immunity than we would have seen in 2009-2010," Hilderman said.
As of late last week, Alberta had confirmed nearly 1,000 cases of influenza -- mostly H1N1 -- with 270 people hospitalized due to the illness. The province has opened mass-immunization centres.
But here in Manitoba, things are relatively quiet.
Hilderman said he's not in a position to explain why Alberta's numbers are so high, although he noted lab-confirmed cases alone do not tell the full story. Each year, many thousands of people get the flu without a medical practitioner taking a swab and sending it to a lab for confirmation, he pointed out.
Influenza is said to be a factor in 4,000 to 8,000 deaths per year in Canada and 100 to 200 in Manitoba. Often these deaths are categorized as due to pneumonia or to cardio-respiratory illnesses, although the flu was a contributing cause.
Meanwhile, the province has distributed more than 350,000 doses of flu vaccine this season, and more than 250,000 have been administered.
Hilderman said it's not too late to get the flu shot, although he noted it takes two weeks from the date of the vaccination for it to be fully effective.
Flu shots are free for anyone with a Manitoba Health card. They can be obtained from family doctors, Quick Care clinics or public health offices.