Last week, Alberta’s Health Minister Fred Horne issued a news release calling on all Albertans, especially health workers, to get immunized against the flu. As always, the release was accompanied by extensive information about the potentially lethal effects of the flu for those with compromised health, especially seniors, small children and those suffering from other conditions such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
According to the news release, only 21 percent of Albertans overall, and about 49 percent of health workers in particular, have received the flu shot this year.
“These rates are too low to adequately protect Albertans, their families and communities,” Horne said.
The minister seems sincere in his desire to see all Albertans be immunized. And his goal of maximizing the number of health workers who get the flu shot every year seems perfectly logical.
What is missing from the government’s communications around the flu, however, is a reason for immunization that would be compelling for a majority of Albertans.
Albertans and Canadians see the flu as a fact of life. It happens every year, and for a huge majority of people who contract the flu it requires no medical intervention whatsoever. For most people who get the flu, it just means a week or so in bed feeling really, really crappy.
Yes, we understand that those who are most vulnerable should get the vaccine because they are the ones who tend to end up seriously ill and requiring medical intervention when they get the flu. We also get that those in regular contact with vulnerable populations should get the vaccine to avoid contaminating those folks. But why should everyone else get the vaccine?
The Alberta government has historically provided two stock answers to this question.
The first is the economic argument. Apparently every year the flu costs the Alberta economy millions of dollars in productivity because of people missing work when they’re sick. This is referenced on the Alberta Health website as one of the key impacts of the flu, and even the minister’s press release of last week highlighted that this year’s flu is especially concerning because “we are seeing younger working-age adults being hospitalized.” Leading with this argument makes clear, or at least gives a strong sense, that the government’s main rationale for wanting 100 percent immunization is primarily about business profits and the bottom-line, not public well-being. How compelling is that argument likely to be for Albertans as a whole? Don’t get immunized for your sake, do it for your boss and the economy.
The other reason the government gives for wanting people to get immunized is that our emergency rooms can’t handle the influx of people showing up with flu symptoms, and the system as a whole can’t handle the number of people requiring hospitalization because of the flu. Just to be clear here, the government’s news release said that 251 Albertans have been hospitalized because of the flu to date.
That number is apparently starting to “limit access to hospital beds, and put strain on other health-care resources.”
The obvious question here is how broken is our health-care system that it becomes overwhelmed by the hospitalization of 251 people across the province? The flu is a fact of life in Alberta. Even if we achieved 100 percent immunization, the vaccine is only 59 percent effective in adults aged 18 – 64, so the influx at the province’s hospitals would not be significantly diminished. The problem is a health-care system that is constantly operating at or over capacity—you don’t fix that through increased vaccination, you fix that through predictable and adequate funding and proper management.
The accompanying problem here is a population worked into a tizzy by alarmist media reporting on the flu and government news releases highlighting the number of deaths. Most people do not need medical attention for the flu, yet the province’s emergency rooms are full of folks there with nothing more than standard flu symptoms. Perhaps instead of beginning an expensive program to report which health-care facilities have the highest rates of staff immunization, Alberta Health should be investing in educating Albertans about when they should head to the hospital and when they should stay home. It’s likely that would have a greater impact on overcrowding in emergency rooms than an increase in immunization rates.
If the government is serious about wanting to increase the rate of immunization, then it is incumbent upon them to provide us with good scientifically based public-health reasons for why we should go get the flu shot every year. If all they’re prepared to tell us is that we should get vaccinated because they’ve underfunded health care and to protect corporate profits, then a majority of Albertans will continue to opt for risk of flu rather than the vaccine. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.