More than half of health care workers in Vancouver Coastal Health facilities choose not to get a flu shot, despite efforts by officials to encourage doctors and nurses to get vaccinated.
Health care workers can get the influenza vaccine against seasonal flu free of charge but the program is voluntary. Unvaccinated staff risk contracting the flu and spreading it to patients. Immunization of both care providers and residents is shown to decrease outbreaks of influenza.
“We’re not achieving our goals,” said Catherine Kidd, who oversees the team that promotes influenza vaccination within Vancouver Coastal Health.
Only 43 per cent of acute care staff and 68 per cent of residential care staff on average had the flu shot from 2005 to 2009, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. Acute care staff work in facilities such as hospitals and residential care staff work in centres such as senior care homes.
“Some people do not believe in immunizations of any type,” Kidd said. “And some do not believe in influenza immunization.”
Staff at other hospitals in Vancouver are also reluctant to receive the flu shot. Vaccination rates among staff at BC Children’s and BC Women’s hospitals hover around 40 per cent.
The Ministry of Health wants to get 60 per cent of acute care workers and 80 per cent of residential care workers vaccinated for seasonal influenza.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. has warned that there are signs that flu is increasing, advising people to get the flu shot. The problem of immunizing health care workers is not limited to Canada—fewer than half of health care workers in the U.S. report getting the shot.
There were 20 flu outbreaks from October 2008 to May 2009, according to Vancouver Coastal Health reports. Ninety-two staff members and 233 residents caught the flu during the outbreaks. Seventeen people were hospitalized and five people died as a result of these incidents.
Program to encourage vaccination among staff
Vancouver Coastal Health runs an annual Influenza Prevention Program to encourage vaccinations. It tells staff where and when they can get free flu shots and warns them of possible consequences of not receiving the vaccine.
Kidd said that if people have firm opinions, it is difficult to convince them even when they are presented with all the facts and information.
“When they decide that all immunizations are poison, it’s not going to change their minds,” she said.
The hospitals are left to battle urban myths on vaccinations.
“Mostly [the program is] focused in on getting the message out there, trying to counteract a lot of the myths that people have about being immunized for influenza,” Kidd said.
Responses from staff
Some health care workers have heeded the call to take precautions against the seasonal flu.
Dr. Andrew Binding who works in internal medicine at Vancouver General Hospital said he received the influenza shot a week ago to prevent the spread of the virus between patients.
“There’s pretty good evidence to support it, so it’s [my] pretty strong belief,” Binding said.
But the flu shot can be a sensitive topic among health workers. Many staff members outside Vancouver General Hospital were reluctant to answer when asked about the influenza vaccine.
One health care worker who said she had never had the shot didn’t want to be quoted by name.
Effectiveness of the influenza vaccine
The influenza vaccine has been shown to be effective in 70 to 90 per cent of healthy children and adults, but only in about half of the elderly, according to the Canada Communicable Disease Report from the Public Agency of Canada. Health care providers who receive the vaccine help decrease their own risk of contracting the flu as well as help prevent death and serious outcomes for patients they care for.
The vaccination rates for residential staff decreased from 75 to 61 per cent in the last five years according to reports from the BC Centre for Disease Control. About 90 per cent of elderly residents receive the flu shot each year, but the effectiveness of the vaccine greatly decreases with old age.
Adults and children with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and cancer are more likely to be hospitalized if they contract the flu. The elderly and residents of nursing homes also have a high risk of flu-related complications.
The Vancouver Coastal Health policy indicates care providers who work directly with patients and who are not immunized must have a seven-day prescription for Tamiflu. The drug is used to treat influenza or to reduce the chance of getting the flu.
If staff members are exposed to influenza at work during an outbreak, they are instructed to take the drug immediately. Direct care providers who fail to comply may be excluded from work without pay.