Influenza campaign in bad need of a booster shot
| Posted: Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 06:00 am
If this is January it must be flu season in Alberta – congested emergency rooms, employees phoning in sick, over-the-counter remedies selling like hotcakes. The question is why – why does this silliness persist and why is it getting worse?
The province has a target of vaccinating 33 per cent of the population against the flu. But as articles in the Gazette have detailed, only 24 per cent received a flu shot in 2011 and the figure for the current flu season is an abysmal 12 per cent. Remarkably, even the vaccination rate for health-care workers is low.
This is just plain dumb. Influenza is an illness that kills. Some 3,500 Canadians will die from influenza this year. Most of us will survive, of course, but the symptoms are truly unpleasant – chills, fever, fatigue and headaches. Not nice. And then there are the costs, which, excuse us, are not to be sneezed at. There are costs to the health system, costs to insurance plans, and costs to the economy in lost productivity, workplace stress and temporary replacements.
Logically, these are compelling arguments for getting a flu shot in the fall before the onset of flu season. And it’s worth noting here that the flu shots made available through public flu clinics are free. All it takes is a bit of time. And now, thanks to the genius of medical research, vaccinations for children are available through a nasal spray.
So why are vaccination rates falling? There are several reasons, all of them without substance. Contrary to popular belief, the flu vaccine is safe and effective; you cannot get the flu from getting a flu shot; you are not immune to the flu, even if you haven’t had it in recent years. Flu viruses are constantly mutating and your immune system needs annual updating through a flu shot.
More worrisome is the increasingly casual attitude toward immunizations in general. Only a few months ago doctors at Alberta Health expressed concern about the slippage in certain immunization rates, especially vaccinations for some childhood diseases. Immense strides in public health over the past century may be creating a false sense of security, leading some parents to believe that diseases such as whooping cough, polio and diphtheria have gone away. They haven’t. They are real and they persist.
None of this is an argument for compulsory vaccinations. If, after reviewing the facts, an individual or family decides against vaccination, then so be it. But there is a lot of false information floating around, notably through the Internet, and it would be appropriate and advisable for Alberta Health to mount a more aggressive public education campaign to set the record straight and improve the overall vaccination rate.
The agency is already doing some of this, including research on why Albertans aren’t getting a flu shot. This is all to the good, but why not move more quickly, especially targeting young people through expanded use of social media? Maybe enlist a pop star or two to lead the campaign. Why not reach out to business groups and employers’ associations to encourage job-site clinics? This should be a receptive audience, if only for reasons of enlightened self-interest.
The bottom line is that influenza hurts the bottom line, and that includes the province’s bottom line. As Alberta heads into a tough budgetary year (or years), a small investment in boosting immunization rates is an easy way to save money.
One more thing: You can still get a flu shot through your doctor or pharmacy.