The head of Alberta's nurses union says health care workers should be free to chose whether to get flu shots — but must understand there could be professional consequences to not getting immunized.

Her statement comes as Alberta health officials mull over whether to make getting the flu vaccine mandatory, after new numbers suggested less than half the health workers around Calgary got the shot this year.

"We support immunization, we encourage our members to access options," said Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta. (UNA). "We are very clear, if you do not choose to be immunized, there are implications including unpaid time from work if there is an outbreak."

With vaccination rates at 45 per cent — and lower than that at some hospitals — both health-care officials and patients say they are worried about what the trend could mean for those coming into contact with health-care workers.

In British Columbia, it's mandatory for health workers to get vaccinated or else wear a mask while caring for patients during flu seasons.


Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, wants to see a higher level of vaccination for health-care workers.

Many US. institutions also have similar requirements in place.

"We would like to see an 80 per cent immunization level, and in particular for those who come in direct contact with patients," said  Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

Denial, opposition to shots possible factor in low rates

It's not clear why vaccination numbers are so low among health-care workers, but Dr. Talbot says it could be because they feel invincible — or are against vaccinations.

"I think some maybe, in a sense of denial, feel like they're going to make it through the flu season without getting influenza," said Talbot. "I wouldn't be surprised to find that a small number of them are actually opposed to immunization, as is the general population."

For those with first-hand experience of pandemics, such as SARS, the choice to get vaccinated is not a difficult one.

"For me because I always get it every year, and the second thing is I come from China," said Calgary's Dr. Dan Chen.

"We do see SARS causing huge trouble in the whole country."