Since October, Calgary has seen hundreds of hospitalizations due to the flu despite the vaccine being offered free of charge.
So why aren’t people getting their annual flu shot?
It is the job of Dr. Jia Hu, a medical health officer for the Calgary zone, to ensure that people are getting immunized each year, and helps deal with any disease outbreaks, including influenza.
“What you’re really trying to do is make sure that everyone, regardless of the background or their income, receives quality care — specifically when it comes to vaccinations,” he says.
Since the start of the flu season in the fall, Hu reported that Calgary has seen approximately 2,000 cases of lab-confirmed influenza, 505 hospitalizations and nine deaths.
Though lower than last year’s numbers, according to Dr. Hu, the number of cases seen in a given year are mainly related to the severity of the flu combined with relatively low vaccination rates.
“Hospitalizations and deaths occur because the flu is quite a contagious disease. It comes every season and we know a certain proportion of the population is going to be affected,” says Hu.
He emphasizes that the flu is, “Different than your run of the mill cold. [It] can cause some pretty severe complications in people, particularly if they have any heart disease or lung disease.”
With children, contracting the flu may result in more severe reactions than with healthy adults.
“The inflammatory response in children can be very strong,” says Dr. Mark Anselmo, a pediatric respirologist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.
“They don’t have a built-up repertoire or history of previous flu infections to help their immune system.”
According to Alberta Health Services, compared to a common cold, flu symptoms appear quickly and include headaches, chills, aches and pains that are often severe. Other symptoms may include a high fever lasting three to four days, a cough and extreme tiredness.
The flu is also unstable and mutates more easily than other viruses. This makes it even harder to predict what strain will govern each season, according to Hu.
To keep the flu at bay and prevent hospitalizations and death, the public can get their annual flu vaccine, which is designed to introduce to the body a dead or inactivated virus.
“[This] prompts your immune system to be aware of that particular virus or condition. Once your body is aware of that condition, when it sees the real virus it’s better able to fend that off,” says Hu.
Despite the convenient access to vaccines at locations like health clinics and pharmacies, there is still a hesitancy among Albertans to immunize.
“About 30 per cent of the population gets the flu vaccine in a given year,” says Hu. “That number is a lot lower than our immunization rates for other diseases which tend to be closer to 90 per cent.”
It isn’t just Alberta where vaccination rates are low. Hu also revealed that Canada only sees around a 30 to 40 per cent immunization rate. These rates can result from many potential reasons.
“I think one reason is that people don’t think of the flu as being that serious of an illness. Another is that it’s a vaccine that you have to get every year, whereas a lot of vaccines you get once or twice, then you’re given lifelong protection,” says Hu.
“Lastly, you see this general mistrust of vaccines, a vaccine hesitancy we call it, occurring across the spectrum — where people think the vaccines aren’t safe or [are] not effective.”
This hesitancy has also gained more traction over the past decades, one of the reasons being that there is a feeling of a decreased threat to public health.
“A lot of the diseases the vaccines prevent against we don’t see as much anymore,” says Hu, citing examples such as polio and smallpox.
“Because vaccines have been so effective at controlling or eliminating so many of these diseases, people don’t necessarily feel the same urgency to get vaccinated [for the flu].”
“Layered on top of this is a lot of misinformation around the safety of vaccines,” he continues. “Unfortunately [this] misinformation has been propagated by various people in society.”
To allay anyone concerned about receiving the flu vaccine, Hu emphasizes that there is little reason not to be immunized.
“Vaccines are probably the safest type of medication we have. They have to be safe because you give them out to everyone in the population,” says Hu.
“The flu is quite a debilitating illness,” he says. “Even if you just have a regular course [of] the flu, you tend to be knocked out and unable to go to work [or] to school for many days.
Getting vaccinated is also important as it can protect those around you, and can help provide herd immunity.
“You might not be as concerned about your health but you’re worried about the health of [your] children or the health of your parent or grandparent,” Hu says. “By protecting yourself, you protect other people as well.
The flu season peaks during the colder months however, the virus can still be seen as late as April. Although it is better to be immunized as soon as possible, vaccines are still available now.
To find out more about vaccines, the flu and other vaccine-preventable diseases, go to immunizealberta.ca, call Health Link at 811, or go to your family doctor or community health center.
Editor: Matt Hull | firstname.lastname@example.org