Stewart: Alberta health workers failing to protect their clients

Seniors and health-care workers stand out for their failure to be broadly immunized for influenza

Seven years after H1N1 sounded alarm bells about influenza’s menace, some Albertans still have a great deal to learn.

As another flu season arrives, free immunization is again being offered to all Albertans. Alberta Health Services wants to surpass the almost 1.46 million doses administered last year. The target, about 35 per cent of the population, would be an increase of about eight per cent over 2015-16.

The health and economic benefits of surpassing those goals are immense, and we are making some gains in most areas.

Over the last 13 years, the number of Albertans who receive a flu vaccine has steadily increased — pushed in great part by the H1N1 scare of 2009-10. But while overall compliance has increased, two groups stand out for their baffling and disconcerting stubbornness: seniors and health-care workers.

The number of Albertans aged 65 and over who receive a flu vaccine each year has actually declined since 2009-10, Statistics Canada data shows.

That’s particularly unsettling given that seniors represent one of two high-risk age categories (the other being young children).

Among adults over the age of 55, respiratory issues (which include influenza) are the third largest cause of death and hospitalization, according to the Canadian Healthcare Influenza Immunization Network.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says influenza lowers the body’s ability to fight off other infections that can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis or other complications. In addition, the flu can worsen medical conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease and cancer.

Influenza also exacerbates such issues as heart failure and rheumatoid arthritis, both of which are more frequent among the senior population.

But seniors aren’t alone in their baffling hesitancy to protect themselves and those around them. Almost half of Alberta’s health workers didn’t get immunized last flu season. That defies common sense.

Alberta Health Services wants an 80 per cent participation rate among health workers this year, from 55 per cent last season. Albertans should have a higher expectation: that the province legislate health care worker compliance, so we are all better protected.

There are few rational explanations for a health worker’s failure to be immunized. The nature of much of the work they do puts them in the influenza pipeline in a way few of us could match. By not being immunized, they run a much higher risk of getting sick and missing work when they are needed most. And by failing to protect themselves, they are also failing to protect their clients, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to influenza’s most devastating impacts.

The influenza immunization network estimates that the flu costs the Canadian economy more than $1 billion a year and accounts for 1.5 million lost workdays. In Alberta alone, the 2015-16 flu was responsible for 62 deaths and 1,681 hospitalizations.

So why, on the face of those numbers, buttressed by the knowledge that we dodged a huge crisis in 2009-10, are so many Albertans not getting the message?

H1N1 was officially labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization, but there is little doubt that the influenza of 2009-2010 was modest in both its impact and its duration when measured against worst-case forecasts.

Nevertheless, H1N1 had all the earmarks of a disaster in the making — it spread rapidly and widely, it brought devastating illness and it could be deadly. It emptied out school classrooms and handcuffed employers as it jumped from one victim to another.

Yet, in the face of a menacing health threat, significantly fewer Albertans received the vaccine than other Canadians. Close to 50 per cent of all Canadians were immunized, but only about 40 per cent of Albertans got the vaccine; in some parts of the country, immunization rates were above 70 per cent.

The death rate from H1N1 in Alberta was 19.1 per million people; the death rate nationally was about 12.6 deaths per million.

Health officials say hospitalization rates in Alberta as a result of the influenza strain were also above the national average.

In all, 71 people in Alberta died from H1N1, and 429 died nationwide.

With 11.1 per cent of the national population, Alberta suffered 16.6 per cent of all H1N1-related deaths.

Many Albertans have apparently heeded the H1N1 lesson: immunization saves lives, protects the economy, and ensures health-care resources are more broadly used.

But some Albertans still haven’t got the message, and that hurts us all.

John Stewart is editorial vice-president with Troy Media Digital Solutions Ltd. and editor-in-chief of Troy Media.

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