Health minister asked about Alberta’s vaccination rate after report on vaccine messaging documents

Click to play video: 'Low vaccine uptake fuels spike in respiratory illnesses: health officials'
Low vaccine uptake fuels spike in respiratory illnesses: health officials
WATCH: COVID-19, RSV and influenza cases are on the rise this holiday season, putting pressure on hospitals across Canada – Dec 21, 2023

Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange fielded questions Thursday about the flu and COVID-19 vaccination rate in the province during a time when illness, particularly respiratory has resulted in high hospitalization rates.

The questions were raised at a news conference held by LaGrange and her federal counterpart to announce a $1.06-billion, three-year deal with the federal government to help fund improvements to the province’s health-care system.

“Well you know I have received three of my COVID shots, but that being said, I think vaccination is a personal choice and something that needs to be discussed with your health-care professional,” LaGrange told reporters.

Click to play video: 'Albertans on track for lowest flu shot uptake in over a decade'
Albertans on track for lowest flu shot uptake in over a decade

The questions were asked after an article was published by The Globe and Mail earlier in the day. The newspaper said documents it has obtained show the Alberta government directed Alberta Health Services (AHS), the provincial health authority, to remove the words “influenza” and “COVID” from advertisements for the province’s fall immunization campaign at the same time doctors were sounding alarm bells about increasing pressure on public health teams and hospitals.

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Click to play video: 'Alberta health minister addresses rise in respiratory illnesses'
Alberta health minister addresses rise in respiratory illnesses

The report also said the government instructed the health authority to limit information on vaccine benefits and efficacy. LaGrange was asked specifically about The Globe and Mail report at Thursday’s news conference.

“When I look at vaccinations, they provide a valuable tool to reduce illness and we have seen that with children across the decades — when you look back at polio and some of the other diseases that have affected children very adversely — and the fact that we’ve been able to diminish them and in some cases eliminate them, vaccines play an integral part in that,” LaGrange said.

“That being said, vaccines are a personal choice. There is vaccine fatigue out there and so we need to meet people where they are at and provide them the information they need to make good choices for themselves ad their families.”

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Click to play video: 'Premier Smith lays out vision for Alberta health care in mandate letter to health minister'
Premier Smith lays out vision for Alberta health care in mandate letter to health minister

As of Dec. 3, the federal government says the cumulative per cent of people who have received an XBB.1.5 vaccine for COVID-19 in Canada was 14.6 per cent. In Alberta that number was 14.3 per cent.

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The Globe and Mail reported that Alberta’s current vaccination rate against influenza, at 22 per cent. The Alberta government website shows by the end of the last flu season, 28 per cent of Albertans had been vaccinated against the flu.

LaGrange said vaccine hesitancy was also playing a part in the low vaccination rates.

“Vaccine hesitancy is playing a part in some of what we’re seeing, but we’re trying to get the message out to Albertans that vaccines do play an important part in protecting themselves and their children and using all the methods that we have available to us,” she said. “But ultimately it is a personal choice.”

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Federal Health Minister Mark Holland said Canadians should be listening to health experts, especially during a time when respiratory viruses are putting a strain on hospitals.

“We listen to the best data and science — that’s what we do to try to protect our health,” he said. “Have a conversation with our doctor about what’s in the best interest of our health.

“Let’s step back and recognize that vaccines have been a miracle of modern science, that we have nearly wiped out measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough. During the darkest days of the (COVID-19) pandemic, when we were wondering whether a vaccine would be possible, people said it would be 10 years … In this country … (the vaccine) saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and we know how important the flu vaccine is.”

‘It’s pretty rough right now,” Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said of the current state of the flu season.

“We’ve had a really, explosive, aggressive influenza season with a sharp takeoff — and really high hospitalization rates.”

Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, estimated about 60 per cent of patients he sees have complications from influenza with the predominant strain being H1N1.

“If you get sick, watch out for big risk factors of serious disease. What’s bringing people into the ICU isn’t just influenza, it’s influenza that’s leading to a bacterial super-infection.”

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Markland said he believes the province needs to do more to increase vaccination rates.

“There has been no flu campaign,” he said. “I walked into my local pharmacy and I didn’t have to make an appointment — there was nobody there.

“This whole part of public health has been muted effectively.

“Our provincial government should champion public health measures and in fact they are they are doing the exact opposite.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta’s immunization campaign raising questions'
Alberta’s immunization campaign raising questions

In an email to LaGrange’s office, Global News asked for an interview with Alberta chief medical officer of health. In a reply, LaGrange’s spokesperson did not address the request but said AHS’ fall immunization advertising campaign has been running since mid-October and will continue until February.

The statement said the campaign uses a number of media streams to remind Albertans that influenza and COVID-19 vaccines are available. So far this year, $514,890.78 has been spent on the 2023-2024 immunization campaign compared to last year’s budget of $666,748.

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“Alberta’s government is committed to ensuring Albertans have access to what they need to make decisions that benefit their ability to live a healthy life, including access to vaccines,” said Charlotte Taillon, the press secretary for LaGrange’s office.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of vaccine fatigue and it’s understandable — it’s been a rough few years,” said Craig Jenne, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary. “Unfortunately the viruses don’t get tired, they don’t care what we think, and unfortunately, they will exploit what deficiencies we have in our defence.

“This year we’re really being hit with a number of viruses at the same time, with each of them driving some people to hospital for treatment.”

David Shepherd, the Alberta NDP’s health critic for primary and rural care, addressed the revelations from The Globe and Mail report.

“’Do your own research’ is not a public health strategy,” Shepherd said. “It’s the mark of a government that’s abandoned one of its core responsibilities to its people it was elected to serve. Removing government logos from important public health announcements minimizes their significance. The UCP knows this.

“Omitting information about the specific immunizations that will protect people is not only confusing, it is misleading and deceptive — the UCPs actions are directly putting Albertans at risk.”

Shepherd said he believes the provincial government should work with doctors on a strong public health message, one that supports vaccination.

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“They should be taking real action to support doctors and protect public health.”

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