Health experts are raising concerns about Alberta’s low flu vaccine uptake and an Alberta pediatrician says there needs to be better messaging from the province about vaccines.
The latest data released by Alberta Health indicates that only 20.5 per cent of Albertans have rolled up their sleeves for the annual flu shot.
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The Alberta Children’s Hospital remains an extremely busy place, with a surge in children with respiratory illnesses – including influenza, COVID-19 and RSV.
“Right now, influenza is driving our hospital admissions and our ICU stays,” said Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Alberta Children’s Hospital, said.
“We see how healthy, athletic kids are brought down with this virus and the different bacterial infections you can get once you have the flu, because we know that also makes you susceptible to secondary bacterial infection.”
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According to provincial data, only 12 percent of children between the ages of six months and four years have been vaccinated. The rate is 11.3 percent for five-to-nine-year-old children and 10.4 percent for 10-to-14-year-old children.
“I think it’s very low,” Constantinescu said. “I would like to see it go up.
“Usually we’re around 30 percent in any year, but this year is a really bad year for flu and I sometimes wonder if maybe we’ve called wolf too many times in the last few years.”
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Constantinescu said the low vaccination rate could be because the flu has not been serious in recent years, or because parents are tired of getting themselves and their children vaccinated.
“They are tired of being afraid. They are tired of being afraid of some disease that is crippling them and a real threat to their children.
“I feel that way. I just don’t want to think about it, but when we don’t think about it, we don’t do it.”
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Constantinescu recommends wearing a mask, keeping kids home when they’re sick, and making sure kids are up to date on routine vaccines.
“The other immunizations too. Streptococcus pneumonia, which is pneumococcus, we see a lot of activity from that,” she said.
“Consider wearing a mask. It’s not forever.
“My children are now at school with masks because I have to be at the hospital, so I have to be healthy. We have vulnerable people in our household. We are trying to reduce the number of diseases we get.”
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She said there are many things parents can do to help children stay healthy.
“This is not one solution. There are things we can do so that we don’t send our children there unprotected, which is unfortunately what many parents are doing right now,” said Constantinescu.
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Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta Hospital, says the prime minister has a moral and responsibility to ensure there is awareness of available vaccines for children. Ladha said the majority of children admitted to the hospital were not vaccinated.
“The public health messaging in this province has been a consistent failure throughout the pandemic.
“I have families asking me all the time how they can protect their children, and even families who don’t even know the COVID vaccine is available for the younger age groups,” Lahda said.
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Last week, Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health wrote a letter to parents warning them of a flu season that “could be worse than we’ve seen in years.”
Dr. Mark Joffe said this season’s flu vaccine offers protection against H3N2, the most common flu strain in Alberta right now.
“Flu vaccines are safe, effective and offer the best defense against serious illness,” Joffe said in the letter.
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Data shows that 57 per cent of Albertans aged 65 and over have received a flu shot.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, from November 13 to November 19, flu activity continued to increase sharply.
The report says “supervisory indicators are increasing and all are above expected levels typical of this time of year.”
The highest cumulative hospitalization rates are among children under five years of age and adults 65 years and older.
Anyone over the age of six months can receive a free flu shot in Alberta. To book a vaccination appointment, click here.
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