Ottawa Public Health and the Ontario Medical Association teamed up on Wednesday to stress that vaccines for preventable diseases are safe and effective, in hopes the message will help drive up the number of people who go out and get the flu shot this season.
Only 42 per cent of adults and 63 per cent of adults over 65 in Canada got the influenza vaccine during the previous flu season, according to OMA President Dr. Sohail Gandhi, who spoke to reporters at city hall.
“We need to get those numbers higher,” he said.
The national capital was the OMA’s latest stop in a province-wide tour to promote its public education campaign on vaccinations and talk about what they call an “slight uptick” in vaccine hesitancy in the province and in North America more broadly.
The low national uptake for the influenza vaccine is one reason why the provincial association chose to roll out its campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy during flu season, Gandhi said.
Canada’s federal public health agency wants to achieve an 80 per cent coverage rate for the seasonal flu shot by 2025 to order to best protect Canadians who are at a higher risk of complications related to the common, contagious infection.
Here in Ottawa, about a third — or 33.5 per cent — of adults aged 18 to 64 got the vaccine in 2017-18, while 77.9 per cent of adults aged 65 and older according to the most recent data available on OPH’s website.
The rates for both age groups were the lowest recorded since 2013-14.
Usually, Canada’s flu season starts in the fall and peaks sometime between late December and early February. As of Wednesday, there have been seven reported cases of the flu in Ottawa this season, according to Marie-Claude Turcotte, program manager for immunization at OPH.
In Ontario, anyone aged six months or older is eligible to get the publicly-funded vaccine. People can get the flu shot at one of OPHs flu clinics across the city starting Nov. 2 and until Nov. 20, or from their family doctor.
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Participating pharmacies are also administering the shot for people five years of age and older.
Children under five will either need visit a family physician or make an appointment with one of OPH’s special clinics that will immunize young children. (Those clinics will remain open until February 2020.)
Turcotte said it’s better for people to get the flu shot early so they’re protected from infection when the flu spreads, but added it’s “never too late” to get it if the vaccine is still available.
If you do fall ill, Turcotte encouraged residents to take steps to “stop the spread,” including staying home and washing their hands, doorknobs and other surfaces frequently.
‘We need to be vigilant’
While it’s still working to achieve a higher flu shot rate, the city of Ottawa has relatively high vaccination coverage for other preventable diseases like measles, mumps and polio, according to Dr. Trevor Arnason, OPH’s associate medical officer of health.
The rates for school children who don’t get these vaccines for non-medical reasons are around two per cent or less, he said. Ottawa surpassed national targets for certain preventable-disease vaccine coverage in 2017-18, but didn’t meet them for others, particularly among seven-year-old students, according to the public health unit.
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At a time when the World Health Organization has deemed vaccine hesitancy a threat to international public health, and the United States was in danger of losing its measles-elimination status, Gandhi and Arnason argued that citizens and public health agencies can’t get complacent.
“That, to me, is an alarm bell. That, to me, is a warning that we can and should actually be proactive so we never actually reach that stage,” Gandhi said in reference to the U.S.
“We need to be vigilant,” Arnason said.
The vaccine coverage rate needed to stop the spread of a disease is 95 per cent — a status referred to as “herd immunity.”
Gandhi, a family physician, said he and other doctors are getting more and more questions about whether vaccines are truly safe, questions that are often triggered by misinformation and “inaccurate stories” about vaccines that continue to live and spread online — particularly on social media.
“Vaccines work, vaccines are safe, and we need to try and ensure that every child gets immunized,” he said.
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The OMA president urged parents — who he acknowledged want to “do the best for their children” — to consult legitimate sources of information, like their local public health agency, the OMA’s dedicated website for scientifically-proven information about vaccines, or the World Health Organization.
“It’s really, really important to look at credible sources as opposed to take a story from an individual and think that must apply to everybody,” Gandhi said.
– With a file from Leslie Young