“New Brunswick has one of the highest percentages of older people in the country and if you don’t make such an important medication like high dose flu vaccine available to them conveniently, they’re not going to use it, they’re not going to get it and people are going to become very sick and even die from it,” said Bill VanGorder, the Atlantic representative for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP).
High dose flu vaccines are designed for seniors, who often have weaker immune systems than the rest of the population and are at greater risk of hospitalization and flu-related death.
According to the website of Fluzone, one of two manufacturers of the high dose vaccine, the shots are only available in two locations in New Brunswick.
The vaccines are also not covered by the publicly-funded flu shot program administered by the Department of Health, meaning those who want the high dose shot will have to shell out around $65.
Other jurisdictions have begun to fund their use, in varying amounts. Nova Scotia will be offering the shots free of charge to those living in long term care facilities for the second year in a row, while Ontario offers it to anyone over the age of 65.
“Many of the provinces of Canada have found ways to make this available to all their older adults,” VanGorder said.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell was not available for an interview, but said in a statement that the vaccines available through the publicly-funded program aim to protect people from four strains of influenza, whereas the high dose shot only provides protection from two.
“The Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health acknowledges that seasonal influenza vaccination is an important preventative measure for seniors against severe disease and complications. Some pharmacies may have chosen to offer the high-dose vaccine at a cost however it is not included in the publicly-funded program,” Russell said in the statement.
Background information provided by the department also notes that “public health is committed to providing a cost effective immunization program that provides optimal protection within our fiscal realities.”
While it’s true that the high dose vaccine is more expensive than the standard shot, VanGorder argues that the cost needs to be weighed over the entire system.
“For $65 you give somebody a vaccine that keeps them out of the hospital, keeps them from suffering the other problems that seniors do when they get the flu.”
“How much money are you saving with that simple investment of $65 to begin with?” he asked.
“We need to stop siloing our money and insisting that because we’re spending it other places we can’t spend it here. The health system has to look at the overall benefits and make judgements based on what will be the most effective for the most seniors and keep the most seniors healthy.”
The annual influenza report from the Department of Health states there were 619 people hospitalized with influenza during the 2018-2019 season, including 106 trips to the ICU and 36 deaths. Of those hospitalized, 51 per cent were over the age of 65, down from 70 per cent the prior season.
According to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, the high dose vaccines appear to be effective.
A report from 2018 says “there is good evidence that Fluzone® High-Dose provides superior protection compared with standard-dose TIV in the elderly.”
The president of the New Brunswick Medical Society (NBMS), Dr. Chris Goodyear, was not available for an interview but sent a statement suggesting that there is a conversation to be had around high dose vaccines.
“While high-dosage flu vaccines are not covered by Medicare in New Brunswick at this time, the NBMS feels a discussion between government and health-care stakeholders is warranted about potentially making them available to vulnerable populations, including seniors,” reads the statement.
“The NBMS would be pleased to participate in any such discussions.”