Alberta runs low on flu vaccine as H1N1 fears trigger spike in demand

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

If you're an Albertan who held out against the pressure from public health officials to get an influenza vaccination, you literally may have missed your shot.

CBC News has reported the province is expected to run out of flu vaccine by the end of this week, despite getting another shipment.

Alberta has become this year's flu hot spot in Canada, with Health Canada's FluWatch page showing the heaviest activity in the Calgary and Edmonton areas.

Western Canada generally has been harder hit than the East, according to Google's Flu Trends map, which graphs search queries as an indicator of flu activity.

The main culprit this year has been Influenza A or H1N1, also known as swine flu, which last appeared in 2009.

But officials are now also damping down concerns after an Alberta woman died Jan. 3 of so-called bird flu (H5N1) apparently contracted while on a trip to China, the first known death in North America.

The current seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against H5N1 but officials stress the chances of becoming infected through person-to-person contact are very low.

[ Related: H5N1 bird flu: What you need to know about avian flu ]

H1N1 is serious enough. FluWatch says that as of the end of December, 17 hospital deaths associated with flu have been reported, 13 linked with H1N1. The figure is likely higher because it doesn't include several provinces, including B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and with limited stats from other provinces.

About 3,500 people with influenza die every year but health officials say the disease may be only one factor in cases involving people with pre-existing illnesses, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

Officials have been urging for weeks that Canadians get their flu shots but vaccination rates in most provinces historically are below 50 per cent. Some people worry about potential side effects or believe the shot won't protect them, while others simply roll the dice.

But the spike in H1N1 in Alberta has led to a rush by holdouts in that province to get vaccinated.

[ Related: Is B.C.’s flu-shot-or-mask policy for hospital visitors going too far? ]

The Globe and Mail reported last week many were lining up for the shot out of concern for their children because H1N1 seems to hit the young and also healthy adults especially hard.

At the time, Alberta Health Services (AHS) said the vaccine would be available until the end of March.

Almost a million Albertans – roughly a quarter of the population – have been vaccinated so far this flu season, with 150,000 in the past week alone, CBC News said.

AHS received another 65,000 doses of the vaccine recently but its supplies were expected to run out by the end of the week. Officials decided pharmacies, which have accounted for a third of vaccinations, and doctors' offices would be allowed to retain their vaccine stocks but not receive batches from the new shipment.

[ Related: Spread of H1N1 flu across Canada calls for more people to be vaccinated ]

Alberta has had nine H1N1-related deaths so far, the National Post reported, but public health officials are playing down the risks relative to other years.

“The bottom line is that this is a normal flu season and we have more Albertans protected than we’ve ever protected before, with the exception of the year that the pandemic stream got all the news,” Dr. John Talbot, chief medical officer of health for the Health Department, told the Post.