Hepatitis B vaccine shortage hits Edmonton travel clinics

Edmonton travellers hoping to get the hepatitis B vaccine may be out of luck as country-wide supply issues hit the city's travel clinics. Several travel clinics told CBC News they were dealing with a limited supply of the vaccine.

Combined hepatitis A and B vaccine Twinrix still available

Country-wide hepatitis B vaccine shortages are hitting some Edmonton travel clinics. (The Canadian Press)

Edmonton travellers hoping to get the hepatitis B vaccine may be out of luck as country-wide supply issues hit the city's travel clinics. 

Several travel clinics told CBC News they were dealing with a limited supply of the vaccine.

"I actually used my last dose today," Raj Manhas, managing owner of the Edmonton Vaccination Clinic, said on Monday. "I've been telling people it's been out before that."

AHS offers free immunization to Grade 6 students and anyone born after 1981 who missed the school immunization. People at a higher risk of contracting the virus, such as workers and students in the healthcare industry, can also receive a free immunization on a case-by-case basis.

The Canadian government lists many regions with higher numbers of chronic hepatitis B in the general population including parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, South and Central America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The vaccine is not covered for travel purposes alone. 

Managing supply

AHS confirmed the shortage has not affected patients eligible for a free vaccination but has led to some changes at their travel clinics.

"AHS Travel clinics are managing their supply by prioritizing doses for travellers who are not eligible for provincially-funded hepatitis B vaccine," spokesperson Kerry Williamson wrote in an email to CBC News Monday night. 

Private clinics will routinely immunize travellers who want the vaccine and those who are hoping to expedite the process, even if they qualify for the free immunization through AHS.

Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease ranging from mild illness with no symptoms to serious condition that might require hospitalization and result in death. 

Mariela Robleto, owner of Atlas Immunization Services, said her private clinic won't offer the vaccine to anyone who qualifies through AHS and will only immunize high-risk travellers.

"We have some in stock, but we have to have a process in place so we don't run out," she said. "We have to leave it for people that are a higher risk."

Robleto said that healthcare workers or people who expect to be sexually active are just two examples of high-risk travellers, since hepatitis B is a bloodborne virus. No one has been turned away because of the shortage as of Monday, she said.

Merck Canada Inc., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country, started experiencing a supply shortage in March because of manufacturing disruptions, according to a federally-mandated report filed through www.drugshortagescanada.ca.

The report said the company expects the shortage to last until April 2019, with remaining doses reserved for public immunization programs.

The other big supplier of the hepatitis B vaccine, Glaxosmithkline Inc., reported shortages due to increased demand at the beginning of April, just weeks after Merck's supply issues began.​

Travellers in search of a quick immunization do have another option. The combined hepatitis A and B vaccine, Twinrix, is still in supply although at a higher price point.

The Twinrix vaccine is often $20 to $30 more per dose compared to the hepatitis B vaccine. In the absence of Hepatitis B vaccine, some clinics will offer the Twinrix vaccine even if it means doubling up on the hepatitis A immunization.