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Flu vaccination rates not high enough, doctors say, as pediatric hospitals fill up

Ontario's ministry of health said it does not make flu vaccination rates available to the public until "after the influenza season." In an emailed response, the ministry said that about 30 per cent of Ontarians usually get the flu shot each year.
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A flu shot is administered.(THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Toby Talbot)

Despite the ongoing crush of sick children straining Canadian hospitals — many of them suffering from the flu — not enough people are getting vaccinated against the virus, doctors say.

The Canadian Press asked health ministries and departments in every province and territory to provide their most up-to-date flu vaccine uptake numbers. Among the provinces and territories that responded, the overall immunization rate is 30 per cent or below, and lower among children.

In the Northwest Territories, 11 per cent of kids under five have received the flu shot. In Manitoba, it's 12 per cent. In Alberta, the rate is less than 17 per cent.

B.C. is faring better after a recent walk-in clinic vaccination blitz, with just over a quarter of kids under five vaccinated against the flu.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, emphasized the importance of getting young children vaccinated against flu at a news conference on Wednesday.

Kids under five have the highest hospitalization rate for flu, she says, noting that currently, the weekly pediatric hospitalization rate is above levels typically seen at the peak of influenza season. She also said ICU admissions and deaths are higher than usual among children.

"This year's influenza vaccine is a good match to circulating strains," Tam said. "As we rapidly approach the holidays, now is the time to get vaccinated if you have not already done so."

Ontario's ministry of health said it does not make flu vaccination rates available to the public until "after the influenza season." In an emailed response, the ministry said that about 30 per cent of Ontarians usually get the flu shot each year.

Nova Scotia also said its flu shot uptake numbers for this year were not yet ready.

Québec said it measures flu vaccination rates for targeted populations. More than 70 per cent of its long-term care and retirement home residents have received the shot this year, it said.

But the vaccination rate among health-care workers, who are another priority group for the province, is only 21 per cent. That is not high enough, said Dr. Luc Boileau, Québec's public health director.

"We had a discussion this morning with all the chief executive officers (CEOs) responsible for all the institutions and of course we think that it's not enough," Boileau said at a news conference on Wednesday, Dec. 14. He estimated that health-care workers who deal directly with the public likely have 35 to 40 per cent flu vaccine uptake.

Several provinces provided average rates of influenza vaccination for their populations as a whole. Of those, B.C. has the highest flu shot uptake at 30 per cent — an improvement from last year.

Alberta reported a 24 per cent rate of flu vaccination, while both Manitoba and Saskatchewan had 22 per cent uptake. About 20 per cent of people in the Northwest Territories have had their flu shot this year.

Seniors appear to have the highest flu vaccination rates, ranging from around 50 to 70 per cent.

Most of the data provided was up to the first or second week of December.

Last year, 39 per cent of adults in Canada got their flu vaccinations, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada's website. Vaccine uptake for children is not listed on the site.

Dr. Justin Penner, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist speaking for the Canadian Paediatric Society, said people six months of age and older should get a flu shot — and that there should be a sense of urgency similar to COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.

Penner said the flu shot not only cuts down transmission of the virus, but also keeps people from getting as sick and needing to be hospitalized if they do become infected.

With files from Camille Bains in Vancouver and Jacob Serebrin in Montreal. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2022.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

 

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