B.C. must make flu shot free for everyone, vaccination researcher says

Not all British Columbians can get the influenza vaccine for free and a Canadian vaccination researcher says that needs to change in order to save lives and money in the long run.

B.C. is one of three provinces where some patients have to pay out of pocket every year for the vaccine and this actually costs the health care system more than having universal flu coverage, says Ontario-based physician and researcher Dr. Iris Gorfinkel.

"You pay for more clinic visits, emergency room visits and you pay for more hospitalizations," said Gorfinkel in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition. "When we look at the cost efficacy of flu vaccinations, it is the best deal going in health care."

In Ontario, the flu vaccine has been free for two decades. Gorfinkel said when the shot became free, vaccination rates "massively increased" from 18 per cent to 42 per cent. According to Gorfinkel, the target for vaccination is 80 per cent.

In a statement, the B.C. Ministry of Health says it publicly funds the vaccine for populations who are at a high risk of severe disease or complications from influenza, as well as those who care for them.

"Funding decisions, especially when it comes to public health, are difficult and the ministry weighs its priorities based on best evidence while balancing all other health-care demands," said the ministry's statement.

Those eligible for a free vaccine in B.C. include:

  • seniors
  • children aged six months to five years 
  • pregnant women 
  • Indigenous people 
  • health-care workers
  • patients with chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems

New Brunswick and Quebec are the other two provinces in which the vaccine is not free for all residents.

Doug Ives/The Canadian Press

But Gorfinkel said everyone should have free access, otherwise the risk of exposure in public is high.

Complications from the flu can be deadly, Gorfinkel says, adding that a person's heart attack risk increases in the week after having the flu and that there is also a risk of developing pneumonia.

Gorfinkel recommends provincial governments establish a flu vaccination registry and then send targeted email reminders to those who need it.

According to Statistics Canada, about 12,200 Canadians are hospitalized because of influenza every year and about 3,500 people die from the virus, making it one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the country.

Flu shots are available now from family doctors, walk-in clinics and urgent primary care centres. Anyone aged five years or older can also be immunized at a pharmacy.

Those who are not eligible for a free vaccine can purchase it at most pharmacies and travel clinics for around $25 to $30.

A list of flu clinics in British Columbia is available here.

To hear the complete interview with Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, tap the audio link below: