Flu vaccine still urged, but supply shrinking

Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacist and owner Alex Dar Santos holds an empty vial of influenza vaccine at his Cambie Road store. - Matthew Hoekstra
Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacist and owner Alex Dar Santos holds an empty vial of influenza vaccine at his Cambie Road store.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra

Richmond's medical health officer is still recommending people get a flu shot—particularly those at high risk—despite a vaccine supply that's dwindling in the final months of the flu season.

"I think it's still worthwhile," said Dr. James Lu. "The flu season generally lingers on, it doesn't really completely peter out until the end of March."

Demand for the vaccine is higher this year, said Lu, because the prevalent virus strain of H1N1 is causing more illness in younger people—giving the flu greater visibility and prompting more people to roll up their sleeves.

Public health officials say nearly 1.4 million B.C. residents have been vaccinated against the flu since October. Lu still encourages those who haven't to get vaccinated, especially those with chronic diseases and pregnant women. But he acknowledges that message can be frustrating when medical offices and pharmacies are running out of supply.

In Steveston, the Medicine Shoppe ran out of stock last month, and supplies at London Drugs' two Richmond stores ran out last week.

Lu said more vaccine could arrive in B.C. late this week or next, and he recommends people contact their family physician, local pharmacy or the Richmond Public Health unit for availability.

In the meantime, key to prevention is hand-washing, said Lu, who also urged those who are sick to stay home to avoid passing the disease on to someone else.

"The virus survives on surfaces for awhile. That's one of the common sources of people getting sick, is through their hands," he said.

Pharmacist Alex Dar Santos had nine doses of the vaccine remaining Wednesday at his Shoppers Drug Mart store at No. 5 and Cambie roads. Supply at other locations is also drying up, he said.

"The recent news has caused people to make any surpluses disappear pretty quickly," he said. "My best advice for customers is to call around first to see if there's anything out there, and potentially some doctors may have some left."

Pharmacies—which have been able to administer the vaccine for a few years now—order the vaccine in advance of the season, and while production hasn't ceased, distribution is switching to the southern hemisphere ahead of its flu season.

Dar Santos recommended people at high risk get vaccinated in the fall before the virus spreads, as the vaccine can take up to two weeks to take effect.

"So if someone has the flu in their house now, and you get the flu shot now, you're not protected."

Earlier this month health authorities warned the dominant flu virus circulating this season, H1N1, was hitting younger people unusually hard, causing severe illness and intensive care unit hospitalizations.

H1N1, which makes up more than 80 per cent of flu cases in B.C., has been linked to four deaths on Vancouver Island and one in the Interior. None are officially listed in Metro Vancouver.

But officials say those numbers understate the true scope of fatalities because patients hospitalized with flu-like symptoms—even those who die—are not generally lab tested for a final confirmation of influenza type.

Can the flu vaccine make you sick?

•Impossible, according to Richmond medical health officer James Lu. The most common flu vaccine doesn't use a live virus, only components of the virus that officials know to generate immunity.

•People getting vaccinated could already be on their way to getting sick. Plenty of cold viruses are already circulating, and the flu vaccine can take up to two weeks to take effect.

What is influenza?

•Influenza symptoms last an average of two days: fever, headache, muscle pain, runny nose, sore throat, extreme tiredness and cough; fever and other symptoms can last up to 10 days

•Each year in B.C., hundreds of people die from influenza or complications from influenza, such as pneumonia

•Flu vaccines are provided at a variety of locations, including public health clinics, physician’s offices and pharmacies

•Flu season is usually November to April, and vaccines are usually available beginning in late October

•Since the flu virus changes a new vaccine must be given every year

•In B.C., the cost of the vaccine is covered for people at high risk of serious illness and people able to transmit or spread the flu to  those at high risk

*Source: ImmunizeBC

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