Three unvaccinated children under the age of 5 have died from this season’s influenza outbreak in the province of Saskatchewan, Manitoba.
Two-year-old Kaelynn Angel Hansen died on Dec. 8, 2018, after testing positive for the H1N1 virus days earlier. When antibiotics were unsuccessful, she was flown to the pediatric intensive care unit at Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital, according to CBC.
Since then, public health officials have reported that the virus has killed two more unvaccinated children in the province.
The H1N1 influenza A virus, which was responsible for the influenza pandemic of 2009-2010 that killed 428 Canadians, hits young children particularly hard, as without the vaccine, they have minimal immunity to it.
And yet, data from Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health indicated that only 1 in 3 toddlers have been vaccinated in the province — and only 1 in 5 children from 5 to 8 years old, CBC reported.
Flu activity is picking up steam in Canada - especially in southern Ontario. The large majority of cases are H1N1 - which hits children young adults particularly hard. via @PHAC_GC#influenza#flushotpic.twitter.com/NIp8jQBu6S— André Picard (@picardonhealth) January 4, 2019
"People need to understand giving the flu shot is like putting on a seat belt," Dr. Laurentiu Givelichian, the Saskatchewan Health Authority's head of pediatrics, told CBC. "It's extremely devastating for all of us, because we cannot save a child we know we could have saved."
There have been 1,988 lab-confirmed cases of influenza confirmed in Saskatchewan alone, with six flu-related deaths, according to the most recent data.
Across Canada, the number of pediatric hospitalizations for influenza has doubled in comparison to this time last season, with 24 reported deaths, according to the most recent FluWatch report from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"Generally, H1N1 seasons can be milder. The reason they can be milder is that seniors who lived through H1N1 when they were younger have better immunity against H1N1," Michelle Murti, a public-health physician with Public Health Ontario, told the Globe and Mail. "What we do see is a shift to a younger age group in H1N1 years where children and young adults tend to be more susceptible."
Vaccines like the flu shot act as the first line of defence against influenza strains like this and the reason public health officials push parents to vaccines all of their children.