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Patients need more options for obtaining immunization shots, Newfoundland pharmacists say

The National Advisory Committee on Immunizations (NACI) recommends people six months of age and older get vaccinated against the flu every year.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunizations (NACI) recommends people six months of age and older get vaccinated against the flu every year.

The Pharmacists’ Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL) says the province has limited patients’ options for flu shots this year and is worried about the potential effects of low vaccination rates during an expected rough flu season.

Newfoundland and Labrador has the second-lowest flu vaccination rate in the country and limited access for publicly funded vaccines when compared to other provinces, PANL stated Thursday in a news release.

PANL president Steve Gillingham said the provincial government should broaden the offering of funded flu shots through public health clinics, physicians’ offices and pharmacies to increase immunization rates.

Pharmacists charge $20 to $25 to people not covered under the provincial drug plan — that includes the cost of the shot and administering it.

While there are public flu clinics scheduled through the health authorities, the province this year did away with doctors being able to give flu shots under a flu-shot fee of $17 billed to MCP. (Patients can try scheduling a regular doctor’s appointment and ask for a flu shot, but a doctor’s appointment costs MCP $32.)

For patients who are covered under the provincial drug plan (including eligible low-income earners) the province pays pharmacists $13 for each shot.

“The immunization rate for influenza in this province is abysmal,” said Gillingham. “Indications are that this upcoming flu season could be very nasty — with Australia and other areas in the Southern Hemisphere already having one of the worst flu seasons in history, with increased cases of influenza, more hospitalization and a greater number of deaths. Influenza is a very serious disease and we should be doing everything we can to encourage patients to get immunized by creating more avenues for them to access the flu shot, as opposed to what the current provincial government is doing in limiting the options for residents in getting immunized. I urge the health minister and his government to reconsider their stance on the provincial flu immunization program.”

Health Minister John Haggie agreed Thursday that immunization rates in the province are disappointing, but said that’s not a reason to go back to paying doctors to give flu shots.

Haggie said the government is creating more flu shot clinics.

“I have 450 primary care physicians in the province. I have people emailing me and phoning my department on a daily basis saying they can’t get into an appointment,” Haggie said.

“I’ve got capacity coming out of my ears to do flu clinics, and they’re undersubscribed. I would much prefer to have doctors doing what only doctors can do, and other health care providers doing the flu shots — they can do it safely, they can do it efficiently and they can do it effectively.”

Haggie said the real problem is apathy — despite many opportunities, people just don’t get vaccinated.

In every other province where pharmacists can deliver flu shots, all residents or large segments of the population can receive flu shots for free at physicians’ offices, pharmacies and public-health clinics, the pharmacists said.

However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, unless residents hold a public drug program card or have private insurance coverage for flu shots, they must pay a fee at a pharmacy. The problem is further compounded this year by the government’s decision to decrease access to flu shots at physicians’ offices, the pharmacists said.

“We are very concerned with the impacts of limited access to flu shots on residents of our province this year, particularly when our population has such high rates of chronic disease and is, therefore, more susceptible to serious side effects and complications from influenza, including death,” said Glenda Power, executive director of PANL. “Many people who work shifts, hold nine-to-five positions, care for others during the day or otherwise have demanding schedules need flexibility in where and when to get immunized. There is no more accessible health care provider than the pharmacists in community pharmacies, many of which are open nights and weekends, throughout every region of our province.”

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunizations (NACI) recommends people six months of age and older get vaccinated against the flu every year. During the 2016-17 flu season in Newfoundland and Labrador, there were 517 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza, 202 hospitalizations, 29 ICU admissions and 13 deaths reported, the pharmacists said.

In Canada, influenza causes 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths annually, they said.

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