Health experts are raising concerns about Alberta’s low influenza vaccine uptake and an Alberta pediatrician says there needs to be better messaging from the province regarding vaccines.
The latest data released by Alberta Health indicates only 20.5 per cent of Albertans have rolled up their sleeves for the annual flu shot.
The Alberta Children’s Hospital remains an extremely busy place, with a surge of 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.
“We are seeing healthy, athletic kids brought down with this virus and the different bacterial infections you can get once you have influenza because we know it also predisposes you to secondary bacterial infection.”
According to provincial data, just 12 per cent of children between the ages of six months and four years have been vaccinated. The rate is 11.3 per cent for kids who are five to nine years old and 10.4 per cent for kids who are 10 to 14 years old.
“I think that’s really low,” Constantinescu said. “I would love to see that go up.
“Usually we are around 30 per cent in any year but this year is a really bad year for the flu and I sometimes wonder if we may have called wolf too many times in the last couple of years.”
Constantinescu said the low vaccination rate might be because the flu hasn’t been severe for the past several years, or because parents are tired of getting themselves and their kids vaccinated.
“They are tired of being scared. They are tired of being afraid of some illness bringing them down and being a 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.”
Constantinescu advises wearing a mask, keeping kids home when they are sick and making sure kids are up to date on routine vaccines.
“The other immunizations as well. Streptococcus pneumonia, which is pneumococcus, we are seeing a lot of activity of that,” she said.
“Consider wearing a mask. It’s not forever.”
“My kids are in school with masks now because I need to be at the hospital so I need to be healthy. We have vulnerable people in our household. We are trying to reduce the number of illnesses we are getting.”
She said there are many things parents can do to help children stay healthy.
“It’s not one solution. There are things we can do so we are not sending our kids unprotected out there, which is what, unfortunately, many parents are doing right now,” Constantinescu said.
Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta Hospital, says the premier has a moral and responsibility to ensure that there is awareness of available vaccines for children. Ladha said the majority of children who are hospitalized are unvaccinated.
“The public health messaging in this province is consistently been a failure throughout the pandemic.
“I have families all the time asking me how they can protect their children, and even families that don’t even know the COVID vaccine is available to the younger age groups,” Lahda said.
Last week, Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health wrote a letter to parents warning them about a flu season that could be “more severe than we have seen in years.”
Dr. Mark Joffe said this season’s flu vaccine offers protection against H3N2, the most common strain of influenza in Alberta right now.
“Influenza vaccines are safe, effective and offer the best defence from serious illness,” said Joffe in the letter.
Data shows 57 per cent of Albertans 65 years of age and older have received an influenza vaccine.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, from Nov. 13 to Nov. 19, influenza activity has continued to increase steeply.
The report states “surveillance 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 of age and older.
Anyone over six months old can receive a free flu shot in Alberta. To book a vaccination appointment, click here.