About a month ago, provincial health officials were desperate for more H1N1 vaccine.
Now, they have too much.
Alberta received more than 2.2 million doses of the vaccine as of last week, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. So far, only half that many Albertans have had the shots.
The fact that only one-third of Albertans has been vaccinated worries Dr. Gerry Predy, senior medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services.
“We certainly have concerns that more people haven’t come forward,” he said Wednesday.
“We’ve now seen the second wave come through and it’s diminished, but the virus is still there and could conceivably come back any time in the next few weeks, because our flu season does extend throughout the winter into April.”
About 12 per cent of all specimens from people with respiratory infections tested positive for H1N1, though that number has been dropping every week, he said.
“We’re just trying to emphasize to people that getting the vaccination is a preventive measure,” Predy said.
“Now’s a good time to get it, while it’s not here. But if you wait until we are in the midst of an outbreak, it may be too late because you don’t develop immunity instantly. It can take a couple of weeks. But human nature being what it is, people respond more when there’s something urgent. I think they just don’t perceive the urgency now.”
In response to the lack of demand, the federal government sent the province no additional doses this week.
Alberta Health and Wellness committed to buying $11.3 million worth of vaccine before June 2010, John Tuckwell, a ministry spokesman, said in an e-mail. He did not specify whether or not that means the province will still receive another million doses, but added, “Our aim is still to immunize all Albertans who want it this influenza season.”
What exactly the province will do with unused vaccine is not clear. The federal government pays 60 per cent of the cost of the vaccine.
On Tuesday, 3,500 people showed up for shots at Edmonton-area clinics. There were 84 nurses working at those stations, down from a high of 500 at the peak of demand, Predy said.
The declining demand means Alberta Health Services will shut down some clinics over the next few days to a week, he said. Decisions will be made based on how many people show up at each site.
Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann suggested the government should look into why more people aren’t coming forward for shots before it plans the next step.
“On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense that people aren’t coming out for a free vaccination,” he said. “I think we need to know more about what people are thinking about this.”
The government should be asking people if they’re avoiding the shots because of fears of side effects or whether there are problems with transportation or availability, Swann said. Once those questions are answered it becomes easier to plan a response.
Predy thinks a combination of things have kept people away. Bad weather and holiday preparations have perhaps played a part.
“But I think some of it is also that people aren’t too worried about H1N1 because it’s not around anymore. We’ve seen the disease activity drop off. But what we’ve been reminding people is that the virus is still around, although not affecting many people.”
The seasonal flu shot is also available at immunization clinics, though that bug hasn’t made an appearance yet. Only two or three swabs out of thousands submitted have tested positive for the seasonal flu.
About 300 people who die in Alberta each year have the seasonal flu. Their deaths are usually not directly attributed to the flu, but rather to underlying conditions, Predy said. For the H1N1 flu, anyone who died with the virus was counted as an H1N1 death even though the cause of death might have been directly due to something else and the virus only contributed to the death. There have been 62 deaths in Alberta so far linked to H1N1.
Federal officials said Wednesday about one-third of Canadians have so far rolled up their sleeves for the shots.
Vaccination rates among the provinces and territories vary from 25 to 66 per cent, but Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer, said most jurisdictions are hovering around 30 to 40 per cent coverage.
The H1N1 flu pandemic has been waning in recent weeks, but it would be “imprudent” to declare that Canada has reached the peak of this second wave of disease and to predict that the activity will continue to decline, said Butler-Jones. In the pandemic that occurred in 1957-58, cases also waned after a spike in the early fall, only to see a resurgence of serious illness in December and January, he said.
Butler-Jones answered critics who have called for the H1N1 immunization campaigns to be halted because they say enough Canadians have already been exposed to the virus and developed immunity or received the vaccine.
“Unfortunately, there are Canadians who are denying themselves the benefits of vaccination because they believe that we’ve reached a critical mass of population with immunity. I question that logic,” said Butler-Jones.
By the end of this week, about 24 million doses will have been distributed across Canada.