Address swine flu vaccine fears, doctor urges

The federal government needs to reassure the public that it will track the swine flu vaccine's safety and effectiveness, an Ottawa health policy researcher says.

Some Canadians at high risk of getting swine flu have said they don't trust the vaccine enough to get the shot.

"People will refuse to take the vaccine if they don't have confidence in how the vaccine is being rolled out," said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a doctor of internal medicine at the Ottawa Hospital and Canada Research Chair in public health policy at the University of Ottawa.

Wilson worries that fear of the vaccine could undermine government flu prevention programs. That also concerns Dr. Lindy Sampson, chief of infectious diseases and head of pandemic planning at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

"Having the vaccine and being able to distribute it will be a very key part of our response," she said, adding that Canada has a solid record when it comes to the safety and efficacy of the vaccines it produces and distributes.

"The government will not put forth a vaccine that is not safe and I think we need to get that message out."

Pregnant women, health-care workers, those living in northern and remote communities and people under age 65 with chronic health conditions are expected to be targeted first when the vaccine is released in Canada in November.

Arwin Widmer-Bobick is pregnant, but doesn't plan to get the vaccine. She asked her doctor about it, and he told her he didn't have enough information to recommend whether she should get it or not. After talking to her midwife, who recommended the vaccine, she still decided not to get the shot. "Myself and a lot of other pregnant women I know are questioning … what the real facts are," she said. "In terms of the vaccine itself and being a guinea pig … how do I calculate that risk?"

Widmer-Bobick isn't the only one who has concerns. In a poll of 1,000 Canadians conducted in late August, only 45 per cent of respondents said they planned to get the vaccine and an equal percentage said they would not take the shot. The poll was commissioned by the Canadian Press and conducted by Harris-Decima.

Wilson said many people have bad memories of the 1976 swine flu vaccine. Hundreds of people in the U.S. came down with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes paralysis, and 25 people died before the vaccine was pulled from use. Wilson said scientists still don't know exactly what went wrong with that vaccine.

In addition, only 30 per cent of Canadians typically even get the seasonal flu vaccine.

There are also public concerns about the safety of an additive in the swine flu vaccine called an adjuvant that is intended to help boost a person's immunity to the flu.
Internet spreads fear

Wilson said vaccine production is much safer now than it was in 1976. But there is also an anti-vaccine movement spreading fears across the internet, and public officials must wage a better campaign against those negative messages when it comes to the swine flu vaccine, he said.

"It's going to be a very safe vaccine but we just have to take measures to ensure that it's as safe as possible and the safety is being monitored. And this needs to be communicated to the public," he added.

A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said the government has a monitoring program in place with the Influenza Research Network to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Wilson said public health officials need to better publicize that and be up front about how they will evaluate any concerns that are brought up and how potential adverse effects are being reported and tracked. They also need to be clear about what they do and don't know in order to earn public trust, he added.

Meanwhile, Widmer-Bobick said she remains confident about her decision not to get the flu shot, because there are antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu to treat swine flu.

"If I get a fever, I'm going to my doctor's office and I'm going to get the antiviral," she said, "and I'm quite confident that that is both safe and effective, which is something I can't say about the vaccine at this moment."


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