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Flu vaccine uptake plummets in Alberta as experts call for strong messaging from province

So far this respiratory virus season, 24.1 per cent of Albertans have received their annual flu shot. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC - image credit)
So far this respiratory virus season, 24.1 per cent of Albertans have received their annual flu shot. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC - image credit)

Alberta is on track for what could be its lowest influenza vaccination rate in at least a decade.

Less than one-quarter of Albertans — 24.1 per cent — have received their annual flu shot so far this respiratory virus season, according to provincial data.

It's a dramatic drop from the high of 37 per cent in 2020-21.

The last time the province recorded an overall immunization rate this low was at the end of the 2012-13 season, when uptake was 24 per cent.

"It's difficult to imagine we're going to see a significant uptick in the last few weeks of the flu season. So this will either be the lowest in a decade or among the lowest in a decade," said Craig Jenne, a professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

"This is really suggesting that the vaccine campaign this fall had far less success than what we have seen in recent years."

Jenne said Alberta's vaccine uptake traditionally tends to be lower than the national average for a number of preventable illnesses.

"I think it will be critical that as we emerge from this respiratory virus season that we have a hard look at what went well and what didn't go well so that we can better prepare and perhaps better advocate for better vaccine uptake in the next flu season."

Dr. Jia Hu, a Calgary-based public health physician, is also concerned about the downward trend.

"It's a very disappointing number," said Hu, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary.

"I think its sort of emblematic of the sort of wide scale vaccine fatigue that we're seeing for influenza vaccines, COVID vaccines and to a lesser extent other vaccines."

This has a direct impact on Alberta's hospitals, which are already overcrowded and under intense strain, he said.

"The fewer people that are immunized, the more people that will show up in hospital. We know the vaccine is good at preventing hospitalizations. We know it's good at preventing even more serious outcomes like ICU admissions," he said.

Low uptake among seniors

Provincial data shows 61 per cent of seniors have had their flu shot so far this season — far lower than survey data from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which shows vaccination rates among Canadians 65 and older ranged between 70 and 74 per cent during the last four flu seasons.

The goal, according to PHAC, is to have 80 per cent of high risk groups, including seniors and adults with chronic medical conditions, immunized against influenza.

"To hear that [Alberta] is only sitting at 61 per cent, that really concerns me because it means that there's a lot of vulnerable, older Albertans out there who are at high risk," said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Toronto-based Sinai Health and the University Health Network, adding it's not too late in the season to get vaccinated.

"And it's mostly older people, who are some of the 3,500 people who die every year from the flu in Canada."

Dr Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says in his practice, staff often do thorough searches for family members -- even calling concierges and pharmacists.
Dr Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says in his practice, staff often do thorough searches for family members -- even calling concierges and pharmacists.

Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says he's concerned about the low flu vaccination rate for Alberta seniors. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

Sinha also believes poor public health messaging is to blame.

"In Alberta there's been a lot of controversy under this government about vaccine messaging," he said.

"It's not that Albertans don't want to be vaccinated or older Albertans don't believe in vaccines, it's just that when you don't actually get the messaging out there, when you don't make vaccines accessible, then what you see is low rates like this. And then we wonder why our hospitals are overwhelmed?"

The Alberta government came under fire late last year after a report emerged that it had directed Alberta Health Services to remove mention of COVID-19 and influenza from advertisements for this season's immunization campaign.

CBC News asked the Alberta government for a response to the concerns about low vaccine uptake, and what steps are being taken to address it, but did not hear back before publication time.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Alberta's respiratory dashboard showed 1,364 Albertans 60 and up had been hospitalized for influenza since the start of the season. There had been 98 intensive care unit admissions and 78 deaths among people in the same age range.

Meanwhile, Hu said the decline in flu vaccine uptake appears to be mirroring a drop in interest in the COVID-19 immunization.

Just 16.4 per cent of Albertans have received the latest COVID shot.

"What we really need to do is do a bit of a reset on how we even go about promoting these vaccines. I think we need to do more education. We need to do more marketing," he said.

"I think health-care workers — while they're burned out, too — need to have more conversations with their patients about these because what we're seeing is a bad trend downward," said Hu.