When you dispel the myths and look at the facts about the influenza vaccine, more people might feel comfortable about getting the flu shot, says Dr. Claudia Sarbu, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
One of the biggest myths, she said, is that the influenza vaccine will give people influenza, that it contains live flu viruses.
That is not true, Sarbu said.
“The flu vaccine has dead viruses, so the flu vaccine is not built with live, attenuated viruses,” she said. “It is taking two weeks from the time you get the influenza vaccine to the time when your body can defend against the influenza virus, to build that immunity. So, if today you got the flu shot, and in two days you have influenza, well first of all you may have contracted the influenza virus before the vaccine, or even after the vaccine when the body defences are not yet in place.”
Another myth is that people who have an allergy to eggs cannot get the flu shot. That also is not true, Sarbu said.
The provincial government has announced free vaccination clinics will be held provincewide again this year starting Monday, Oct. 22.
A news release states the regional health authorities will begin to host public immunization clinics and offer the vaccine through community health offices. The number of public clinics will be increased this year.
The department encourages everyone six months of age and older to get the flu shot, especially those at increased risk for complications from the flu. This includes pregnant women, adults and children with chronic health conditions, and seniors. People are encouraged to get the flu shot in the fall or early winter to give their bodies time to build up immunity.
Sarbu said it is important to highlight the need for groups of people at high risk of complications to get vaccinated.
“Very young children, seniors 65 and older, and people who have chronic conditions like lung disease or heart disease, or if they have, due to treatments or other diseases, a weakened immune system,” Sarbu said.
“Getting a flu vaccine is a simple action that can save lives by protecting you if you are exposed to the virus and by helping to protect other vulnerable people.”
About 125,000 people received the flu shot last year through the province’s publicly funded vaccination program.
In fact, noted Sarbu, the flu season last year was one of the worst in several years in the province since the collecting of information on the number of confirmed cases began.
“We had the highest number of hospitalizations, highest number of people in ICU (intensive care unit), and highest number of deaths of people — confirmed by the lab that it was influenza illness,” she said. “It was indeed a terrible season.”
Sarbu said the last flu season saw 912 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza in the province. Out of those, there were 342 hospitalizations, with 65 admitted to the ICU. There were also 39 influenza-related deaths, all in the age range of 65 years and older.
“The other key information is that the number of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths reported for the last season was the highest since the start of the influenza surveillance system in Newfoundland and Labrador,” she said.
And it is difficult to predict what the upcoming flu season will be like, she noted.
The Pharmacists’ Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL) said pharmacists in many other provinces have the ability to vaccinate for flu as part of the universal program. In Newfoundland and Labrador, however, unless residents hold a public drug card or have private coverage for flu shots, they must pay a fee at the pharmacy that includes the cost and administration of the vaccine.
“We strongly encourage the provincial government to reconsider their position on the provincial flu immunization program,” said Steve Gillingham, PANL president. “Providing public funding for pharmacist-delivered flu shots would increase the number of residents being immunized, thereby alleviating the strain on emergency rooms and physician offices, and freeing up these resources for more complex care patients.”
However, Health and Community Services Minister John Haggie said last year the immunization targets were significantly exceeded.
“Putting it into a public health environment was really very good,” he said. “We did learn from that and I had a discussion with my officials as to what the level of preparations was for this coming flu season. There will be an increase in the number of clinics and there will also be a change in the way some of them are offered in more rural areas to try to increase reach.
“We are still not very good at flew shots. We are getting into the range of what other provinces do — they run from 30 to 48 per cent.
“But we lead the country for children getting vaccinated. We are up between 94 and 98 per cent uptake for children. We are not very good with adults.”
The influenza vaccine protects against four strains of the influenza virus, including H1N1 and H3N2.
When visiting a clinic, residents are reminded to bring their MCP card and wear a short-sleeved shirt. People can also get a flu shot from their family doctor or local pharmacy if offered there.
Sarbu also advises that, in addition to the flu shot, people should cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, wash their hands often, and clean surfaces and door knobs, and stay home if they are sick.