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Rattled Manitobans rushing to get flu shots after deaths of 2 young people

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More Manitobans are rolling up their sleeves for preventative shots after the unexpected deaths of two young people from the flu, providers say.

One walk-in clinic said it’s seen three times as many patients looking for the shot this week compared to last week, while a pharmacist says he’s administering about twice as many shots every day as he usually does at this time of year.

While many people are aware influenza can kill healthy young people, pharmacist Jason Hoeppner said, it still shocks people when it happens.

“I think it shakes us a bit more when we see that, and kind of reminds us that it’s not something to be taken lightly,” said Hoeppner, who runs the Medicine Shoppe on south Osborne Street.

The uptick in vaccinations follows news this week of the deaths of a 17-year-old high school student and a 24-year-old woman. Their familes say the deaths were due to influenza.

Hoeppner said he’s now seeing more high school students and recent graduates at his pharmacy.

Shaken by death

“It’s a younger sort of demographic than sort of our typical crowd,” he said.

Not everybody explains why they’re getting the vaccine, but a number of people, including those who are younger, are citing the unexpected deaths, he said.

Blaine Ruppenthal, a Grade 12 student at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, died Monday after suffering complications from the flu.

 

Blaine Ruppenthal, a 17-year-old student at Kelvin High School, died after suffering complications due to influenza. (Submitted by Mary-Anne Clarke/Facebook)

 

Ruppenthal, 17, went into cardiac arrest twice on Jan. 7 and was rushed to St. Boniface Hospital, where he was put into an induced coma and received hypothermic therapy, according to a Facebook post from his cousin.

He had Type A influenza, she wrote.

Meanwhile, the death of Joanne Ens from Morden, Man., also made news this week. The 24-year-old contracted a bacterial infection she was unable to recover from, her obituary said.

Doctors believe she had influenza B, her husband said.

 

Joanne Ens died earlier this month after suffering complications with influenza, her family says. (Marissa Naylor Photography)

 

Health officials say the province is dealing with a spike in cases of Type A and Type B influenza. Occurrences of influenza B, though, are happening “at much higher levels than we normally see for this time of year,” chief provincial public health officer Brent Roussin told CBC earlier this week.

Last week, there were 70 lab-confirmed cases of influenza A and 67 cases of influenza B, bringing the total this flu season to 240 and 418 cases, respectively.

To grapple with the surge in sick patients, overwhelmed hospitals are asking employees to work additional hours, while St. Boniface Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg postponed non-urgent surgeries because they don’t have the space.

Nesreen Moussa, a family physician at Seine River Medical Clinic, is noticing an increase in patients herself.

She said the walk-in clinic in southeast Winnipeg administered 25 flu shots from Jan. 4 to 11 of this year. That more than tripled in the five days following, when the clinic gave 84 shots.

Around 30 patients showed up on Thursday night, she said.

“Most of them got worried” by the death of the high school student, Moussa said. They’re “especially bringing their children now to get vaccinated.”

The clinic offered no vaccinations for a month last fall due to a nationwide shortage. Moussa said the clinic is now running out and asking for another shipment.

‘Everybody is rushing’ to get the shot

The province said Friday afternoon it has enough vaccine to meet the demand.

At least one Shoppers Drug Mart location (in Tuxedo Park) ran out of the vaccine, according to an email to customers. Loblaws did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Amal Awad, manager assistant at Prana Family Medical Centre on Regent Avenue, said “everybody is rushing” to get the vaccine, with many parents bringing in their kids.

The province said 22.5 per cent of Manitobans have received the seasonal influenza vaccine so far. It’s too soon to say if there’s been a spike in that number in the last few days, a spokesperson said.

In south Osborne, Hoeppner said around a dozen people a day are getting the flu shot at his pharmacy right now. That’s about double the usual number for mid-January, he said, when most people who want the vaccine have already received it.

He still encourages people to get immunized. The flu season isn’t over and will stretch until March, he said.

“You can still protect yourself and those around you.”

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Omicron could threaten COVID-19 immunity — but we're not going back to 'square one' – CBC.ca

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The omicron variant, now reported in multiple Canadian provinces and a growing number of countries worldwide, could threaten hard-won immunity to the virus behind COVID-19.

But global scientists say the world has a crucial head start on the latest variant of concern, thanks to early detection. And there’s hope this highly mutated version of the coronavirus won’t bring the world back to “square one” in this pandemic.

South African scientists quickly identified and alerted the world to the variant last week, finding a concerning number of mutations that could potentially impact the effectiveness of vaccines, the transmissibility of the virus and even the severity of disease. 

Immunologists and virologists say that while it will still take time to determine the variant’s real-world impact, our immunity from vaccines and prior infection could take a significant hit if it takes off globally. 

“I wouldn’t say that this one’s going to put us back to zero,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona.

“But I do think that if it does spread, it’s going to be a bigger problem than any of the variants we’ve seen before.” 

30+ mutations in spike protein

Omicron contains more than 30 mutations in just the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus which helps it enter human cells.

Bhattacharya said while the mutations in the virus are concerning, it’s important to keep in mind that the immune system is “multi-layered,” and that protection from vaccines and prior infection against severe disease will likely still hold up against the new variant. 

“I think what we’ll see is, in all likelihood, a pretty big drop in how well antibodies work,” he said. “But then once we start to get some real-world studies into how things are doing, my guess is that the vaccines will still be doing a decent job in protecting people from getting really sick.”

WATCH | Will our vaccines protect us against the omicron variant? 

Will our coronavirus vaccines protect us against the new variant?

18 hours ago

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch responds to conflicting statements regarding the effectiveness of current coronavirus vaccines against the omicron variant. 2:16

Canada could actually be in a better position than other countries if omicron spreads more widely, Bhattacharya said, because our delayed second dose strategy provided “more optimal” immune protection in the population.

“What’s pretty clear is that that delayed spacing made a big difference in terms of antibodies and protection against delta — and I suspect it will be the same for omicron if it takes off,” he said. 

“We’ve seen some other variants like this in the past that had us concerned — beta, I think, would be the best example — and it didn’t really take off. It basically just got creamed by delta. And I think we still don’t know the answer as to how this is going to go for omicron.”

Several leading vaccine manufacturers have announced they’re keeping a close eye on omicron and could have new vaccines ready in mere months, if needed.

Moderna’s CEO has also suggested that existing vaccines may be much less effective against the variant, though scientists are still waiting on hard data. 

‘Worst features’ seen so far

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan, said while previous variants have had similarly troubling characteristics, the real scientific concern with omicron isn’t just the number of its mutations, but where they are. 

“Unfortunately, based on just the mutations, it looks like the omicron variant has some of the worst features of all of the variants of concern that we’ve seen thus far,” she said. 

“But it’s also really important to note for people that we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when all of these mutations get together, especially with all the other mutations that the omicron variant seems to have acquired.” 

Some of omicron’s mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility, similar to alpha and delta, she said, while others have been associated with higher immune evasion, like with beta and gamma. And she notes delta has so far dominated all other variants.

“One of my biggest concerns is not so much that omicron is going to be more severe, but if omicron begins outcompeting delta,” Rasmussen said. 

“Especially if it’s capable of causing more breakthrough infections that potentially could lead to another wave in many countries, particularly in the northern hemisphere, as we begin to go inside during the colder winter months and in preparation for the holidays.” 



Precautions will likely still work against variant

But as speculation about the variant spreads quickly alongside rising case numbers, experts say it’s important to keep in mind that vaccines, public health restrictions and personal precautions will likely continue to work well to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“The key right now is we have to stick to the toolbox that we have developed over the last almost two years,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases fellow at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

“The advantage that we have, any time we see a new variant, is we’re still dealing with SARS-CoV-2.”

If research confirms early signals that omicron is more transmissible, the usual principles still apply: It’s best to limit time in crowded indoor settings, and the use masking and increased ventilation to prevent the airborne spread of this virus. 

“Don’t enter into a situation that is likely to be a danger for high transmission, meaning many unvaccinated people not wearing masks,” said Rasmussen. 

WATCH | Canada watching omicron variant closely, Trudeau says: 

Canada is watching the omicron variant closely, Trudeau says

23 hours ago

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada may need to do more to control the new omicron variant. 0:24

With the holidays underway, Karan said it’s also crucial to layer precautions when gathering with family, like being fully vaccinated and adding in extra protections like mask-wearing — particularly around vulnerable groups who are at a higher risk of a serious infection.

“If you’re indoors, around a lot of people, you have to think: ‘Am I somebody, if I get COVID, is this very life-threatening for me?'” said Karan.

Wearing a high-quality mask, such as a KN95, would help stop aerosols or droplets from spreading, Karan noted, even if omicron proves more adept at latching onto human cells.

Unusual for variant to render vaccines ‘obsolete’

Multiple experts also agreed that what’s particularly crucial right now is for unvaccinated individuals to get their shots. 

“At the individual level, if people are not yet vaccinated, they absolutely should get vaccinated,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician.

There are also other ways to expand vaccination coverage, he said, including that children five and up are now eligible for inoculation, and the potential for booster eligibility to expand to more older adults. 

WATCH | What’s known about the omicron variant:

What’s known about the omicron variant

4 days ago

The World Health Organization has declared a new variant of concern called omicron, first identified in South Africa. Scientists say there are a large number of mutations in the omicron variant, which means it could be more infectious and cause more severe illness. 3:00

Even if omicron is capable of evading some level of immunity from the current slate of vaccines and antivirals, which targeted the virus’s original strain, Rasmussen doesn’t expect the variant to fully reduce vaccine-based protection.

“Your immune system is composed of more than just neutralizing antibodies, and we do have other antiviral therapeutics that are in the pipeline,” she said. “So we’re not back to square one.”

Until we know more about what we’re up against, Bogoch said we can’t assume the worst. 

“It would be extremely unusual for a variant to emerge that renders the protective benefit of vaccination completely obsolete,” he said. 

“This may be chipping away at some of the protective immunity, and we’ll figure out if it does and to what extent in the days and weeks ahead. But some people are discussing that this is going to set us back to January of 2020 — and nothing could be further from the truth.”

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Islander living with HIV for 3 decades reflects on World AIDS Day – CBC.ca

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Troy Perrot-Sanderson has lived with human immunodeficiency virus for almost 30 years, but he’s only recently started talking about how he became infected. 

“It’s a very difficult thing for me to talk about,” said Perrot-Sanderson, in an interview tied to Dec. 1, which is World AIDS Day. “I’ve only really started dealing with it.” 

He said he was 21 years old when he was sexually assaulted, while he was living in Alberta. 

After the rape, Perrot-Sanderson said his life “spiralled” as he used drugs and alcohol to cope. 

He has just started to see a counsellor to help him deal with the trauma.

Perrot-Sanderson was a volunteer and later a staff member for AIDS P.E.I. He said his outlook on the disease has changed over the years and he feels much more optimistic now compared to when he was first diagnosed. (Submitted Troy Perrot-Sanderson)

HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.  

Perrot-Sanderson remembers that when he was first diagnosed, he thought his life was over. It took two decades after AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s to find an effective combination of drugs to treat it. In Canada alone, a 2017 report estimated, nearly 25,000 people had died of the disease by the end of 2016. 

“I just slowly prepared myself to die for a few years,” Perrot-Sanderson said. 

Advocate for others

He said he got more optimistic after he starting taking drugs to fight HIV. He volunteered and worked at AIDS PEI (later renamed PEERS Alliance) and was even acting executive director for a time. 

“We can take medication and live a pretty normal life,” he said.

PEERS Alliance recently relocated its office to downtown Charlottetown, and is planning an open house at 250 B Queen Street from 3 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 1. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Of today’s PEERS leader, he added: “I can’t thank them enough. They’re doing all kinds of amazing work in the community.” 

PEERS Alliance runs a number of education and outreach programs, working with a wide variety of people including gay and lesbian youth and adults; the trans community; and people who use drugs, who are susceptible to getting infected due to shared needles.

Still, as Perrot-Sanderson marks this World AIDS Day, he said it’s important to remember the people who have not survived, noting: “I have lost a lot of friends over the years.”

He worries there’s apathy around AIDS and HIV in 2021. 

“A lot of people just don’t talk about it or think about it any more,” he said. “We know how to protect ourselves now — we certainly know so much more, we know how to prevent this disease.”

Hopes for the future

Josie Baker is the executive director of PEERS Alliance, and hopes people will take part in an open house set up to mark World AIDS Day.

Baker noted that there is better access to testing now, with at-home kits available for use “in the comfort of someone’s own home.” 

Josie Baker of PEERS Alliance says she is looking forward to a day when there is no more stigma around HIV/AIDS. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Baker said non-nominal testing is also available, where each test is assigned a number instead of a name before going to the lab for analysis. That means people can be assured nobody at the lab will know who tested positive.   

There are still pressing issues that require lobbying, though, 40 years after the HIV crisis began. Baker said having an HIV care specialist on P.E.I. would help, since many have to go off-Island for specialized care. 

She also said being HIV-positive still carries a stigma on P.E.I. and elsewhere, and people should be able to access care and live in their communities free of judgment. 

“That would be my hope: to end the stigma,” said Baker. 

Perrot-Sanderson agrees, saying stigma often prevents people from seeking medical help. 

“People ignore it and don’t protect themselves,” he said.

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Singapore tests out ‘smart bandage’ for remote recovery

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Researchers in Singapore have developed a smart bandage to enable patients to have chronic wounds monitored remotely via an app on a mobile device, potentially saving them visits to the doctor.

A research team at the National University of Singapore has created a wearable sensor attached to a transparent bandage to track progress in healing, using information like temperature, bacteria type, and levels of pH and inflammation.

“Traditionally when someone has a wound or ulcer, if it’s infected, the only way to examine it is through looking at the wound itself, through visual inspection,” said Chwee Teck Lim, lead researcher at the university’s department of biomedical engineering.

“If the clinician wants to have further information then they will obtain the wound fluid and send to the lab for further testing,” he said.

“So what we’re trying to do is use our smart bandage to cut the number of hours or days to just a few minutes.”

The “VeCare” technology will enable patients to convalesce more at home and visit a doctor only if necessary.

The bandage is being tested on patients with chronic venous ulcers, or leg ulcers caused by circulation problems in veins.

Data collection by researchers on the wounds has so far been effective, according to Lim, who said the smart bandage could potentially be used for other wounds, like diabetic foot ulcers.

(This story refiles to correct to cut extraneous word in the first paragraph)

 

(Reporting by Ying Shan Lee; Writing by Masako Iijima; Editing by Martin Petty, William Maclean)

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