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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Marcus Golczyk, with Taco Monster, hands food to a customer during Food Truck Drive and Dash in the Westerner Park parking lot in Red Deer Friday afternoon. The drive-thru event will run every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. through June. Photo by SEAN MCINTOSH/Advocate staff
Food Truck Fridays, Food Truck Drive and Dash return in Red Deer

Red Deerians are able to take in a drive-thru food truck experience… Continue reading

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid races to 100 points this NHL season

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid sprinted to a 100-point NHL season and… Continue reading

A Foodora courier is pictured as they pick up an order for delivery from a restaurant in Toronto, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Two-year EI review needed to buy time for needed tech upgrades, Qualtrough says

OTTAWA — Canada’s employment minister says a budgetary pledge for funding to… Continue reading

A person wears a face mask as they walk through McGill University during light snowfall in Montreal, Sunday, December 20, 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Some universities say no to proof of vaccination requirement

A COVID-19 vaccine likely won’t be a requirement to return to the… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, participate in a virtual discussion with seniors from Residence Memphremagog in Magog, Que., from Ottawa on Monday, May 3, 2021. Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats are on the move in advance of a potential election this year, recruiting candidates, training volunteers and grappling with how to kiss babies and press the flesh in a virtual, pandemic-restricted world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Grappling with how to press the virtual flesh, parties gear up for election showdown

OTTAWA — The three main national parties are firing up their election… Continue reading

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Most Read