In a year of living through a global pandemic, with many parts of the country going through the second wave of COVID-19, health officials say that getting the flu vaccine is more important now than ever.
For Jill Promoli, the urgency of getting vaccinated for the flu became even more apparent four years ago and her message about flu prevention has only gotten stronger during these times.
Her two-year-old son Jude died from the flu in May 2016. The mother of three says her son woke up early one morning with a low-grade fever. After she put him down for an afternoon nap, she says she found her usually bouncy baby boy unresponsive.
Even though Jude, his twin brother Thomas and older sister Isla got their flu shots just a few months earlier, the autopsy report showed that Jude died of the same strain of flu that he was vaccinated for.
The flu vaccine is usually about 50 per cent effective for most people who get the shot and Promoli says Jude was unfortunately among the percentage of people for whom the shot wasn’t effective.
Since Jude’s death, Promoli’s campaign called “For Jude, For Everyone” has encouraged more people to consider getting vaccinated. Even though getting the shot didn’t save her son, Promoli believes if more people around him were vaccinated, her son might still be alive today.
“After Jude died, there was so much that we learned about [the flu] that we just hadn’t understood about it before,” Promoli said. “And it was shocking to learn how many Canadians died from this preventable disease every year. We are hearing that there’s a lot of people who are choosing to get the flu shot this year for the first time, which is great. We’re really excited to hear that people have made this decision.”
Expanding her advocacy work
According to Public Health Ontario, flu causes about 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.
Besides the educational component about how to prevent getting and spreading the flu, Promoli says her work has also focused on working with pharmacists to widen the scope of their vaccination work when it comes to younger kids. The current provincial regulations state for only family doctors or public health outlets to administer the vaccine for infants aged six months, up to five years old.
She hopes the age limit can be lowered to two years old, so pharmacists can do this instead of having to go to a doctor’s office.
“It’s really hard each year for parents who have kids in that lower age range,” she says. “We see that doctor’s offices are running out earlier each year, while [vaccines are] sitting in pharmacy fridges.”
Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA) says the pharmacists are ready and on-board with this recommendation.
“Two and up — we know pharmacist are comfortable, and we have developed training for them. It would be a natural way to ensure that more people get vaccinated and we don’t have people bouncing around looking for the flu shot.”
Flu vaccine supply and demand
In recent weeks, health care advocates have been sounding alarms over apparent flu vaccine shortages across Ontario pharmacies, with many people being turned away due to low supply.
The province has maintained that there is no shortage of flu vaccines, citing a rollout plan that puts those most vulnerable and working in health care settings to receive the vaccines first.
Last Friday, Premier Doug Ford was criticized for a comment he made about waiting to get a flu shot saying in part “he wouldn’t get a flu shot until every single senior” had one.
Promoli says that while the statement was probably made with good intentions, waiting to get flu shot will not serve everyone’s best interests in the community.
“With his suggestion, he sort of sets that example that we should all be waiting until seniors have had their flu shots,” she says. “And unfortunately, while seniors are higher risk, we also need to be making sure that we’re protecting young kids, pregnant women, and anyone with underlying health concerns.”
Bates says while there is greater awareness about the flu shot this year, which can help avoid some of the burden on hospitals, the increase in demand is also posing a challenge: the surge in demand this early for flu vaccines can’t meet pre-pandemic flu vaccine supply allocation.
“Pharmacies are limited to wholesalers for supply which was based on a previous contract,” he said. “There is enough demand to run flu clinics that could supply 80-200 patients a day. What they’re getting is 40 doses a day. We want to make it accessible, but the reality is there is a total supply that was ordered.”
CityNews reached out to the Ministry of Health and in an email response, the province says over five million flu vaccine doses have been ordered this year, which is 700,000 more than the approximated usage last year.
The province also added that as of Oct. 22, over 4.06 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed to public health units and distributors — over 1.2 million more doses compared to the same time period last year.