Nova Scotia

Q&A: Nova Scotia's top health official on flu shots

The yearly free flu vaccine has arrived in Nova Scotia. But the province's chief medical officer of health says fewer than half the population of the province takes advantage of the flu shot.

Flu shots are free and available at doctor's offices, pharmacies and some public health offices

Nova Scotia will receive 447,200 doses of the flu shot this year, according to the province's Department of Health and Wellness. (CBC)

The yearly flu vaccine has arrived in Nova Scotia.

It's available at doctor's offices, pharmacies and some public health offices — and it's free. 

But the province's chief medical officer of health says fewer than half the population of the province takes advantage of the flu shot. 

Dr. Robert Strang spoke with Wendy Bergfeldt of CBC Cape Breton's Mainstreet. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I know a lot of people think 'I'm healthy, I don't need a flu shot.' What do you tell those people?

We often underestimate flu because we think, 'I've had the stomach flu or some other kind of cold.' When we talk about actual flu, it's influenza, and if you talk to people who know they've had influenza, they will readily admit that it hits them really hard, even if they're healthy. It can really knock you out. As important, or more importantly, there are folks in our community, whether they're very young, very old, have chronic illnesses, who are very vulnerable to getting severely ill, if not dying from influenza. Unfortunately they are also the ones who don't have as good an immune response to the vaccine. So they really rely on the rest of us almost to build a second layer of protection around them so we can't transmit flu to them. So I say, you're not just getting it for yourself. You're getting it for the rest of your family, your neighbours and your co-workers, who may not even know they have an underlying condition that makes them very vulnerable.

What kind of a flu season are we expecting?

We're starting to see a little bit of flu mostly in western Canada. We have had a single case of influenza B in Cape Breton which happened last week, but it's not unusual at this time of year to get sporadic cases. But we're not anticipating anything outside of the range of normal flu season. We never know until it's actually here, but in Nova Scotia, we typically get flu shortly after Christmas and then we have six to eight weeks of peak flu activity. What we've seen in the Southern Hemisphere was, Australia had a bit of an early season but the rest of the Southern Hemisphere had a very normal season. And even in Australia their level of severity was classified as low. So there the bottom line is: we're not expecting anything unusual or abnormal in this flu season.

How effective is the vaccine likely to be?

We don't know for sure until we actually have some early flu activity. But we know that the strains that are in the vaccine are so far matching well with the strains that we're starting to see in the early cases here in Canada. 

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia, is urging people to get the flu vaccine to protect themselves and vulnerable people around them. (Robert Short/CBC)

How many people typically get the flu shot in Nova Scotia?

Not as many as I would hope for. Overall, 36 per cent of Nova Scotians got their flu shot last year and it was roughly the same two years ago. So we have a lot of room for improvement and we've made big strides in terms of increasing access to the flu vaccine by making it available for the last five, six years now in pharmacies. Access is not a reason for not getting vaccinated. I think a lot of people just don't really believe that it's that important to get immunized or have unfounded concerns about the vaccine, that it doesn't work or it's not safe. It is a safe vaccine. It's not perfect in terms of its effectiveness, but we do know that even some years when there's not a great match and the effectiveness isn't as good as we'd like, getting a flu shot is still helpful and it's better than not getting a flu shot because even when the vaccine is only maybe 40, 50 per cent effective, it's much more effective than that in preventing severe influenza and having you perhaps end up in the hospital.

We heard that there was a national delay in getting doses of the flu vaccine. Has that been resolved?

We had a little bit of a delay. In fact, usually at the start of the flu season, which was last week, we have about three quarters of our supply. This year we only had about 50 per cent. We know by Nov. 1, we're going to get the full amount that we expect to get here in Nova Scotia. I need to remind people that there's a lot of pressure at the start of flu vaccination season. I'm confident that we will have lots of vaccine supplied through family doctors' offices, through pharmacies and, in some more rural locations, through public health clinics throughout the coming eight weeks and there will be lots of opportunities for people to get immunized.

With files from CBC Cape Breton's Mainstreet