5 flu vaccine myths dispelled

More provinces allowing pharmacists to give flu shots

About a third of Canadian adults say they get flu vaccine

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews receives a flu shot at a Toronto pharmacy. Phamacists in British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick can also give the vaccine. (Kelsey Rolfe/Canadian Press)

As flu vaccination campaigns get underway this flu season, provincial and territorial health ministers are promoting flu shots.

"By getting the flu shot, you are protecting not just yourself but the people around you, the people you love," Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said before rolling up her sleeve for a shot in Toronto on Monday.

British Columbia announced plans to make it mandatory for health care workers who come into contact with patients during flu season to either get a flu shot or wear a mask.

In May, a poll by Ipsos Reid for the Quebec and British Columbia Lung Associations suggested 36 per cent of Canadians adults said they were vaccinated. On the other hand, respondents who did not get the shot gave reasons such as lack of time and fear of needles for why they declined.

"We spend a lot of time assuring and reassuring people that the flu shot works and that it's safe," Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, told reporters. "There are myths certainly associated with flu vaccines that we spend a lot of time trying to dispel."

1) The flu shot makes you sick.

The flu shot can give you a sore arm and aches. Each year’s vaccine is only designed to protect against the strains it includes. Fever occurs infrequently after vaccination, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

2) I have to get a needle to be vaccinated against flu.

A nasal spray version of the vaccine is approved for use in Canada. Provincial health plans may not cover the cost. 

3) Flu vaccines don't work.

A review of studies from 1967 to 2012 concluded that standard injectable influenza vaccines containing three strains protect healthy adults aged 18 to 64 at a rate of about 59 per cent. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota and the report's lead author.

"During some influenza seasons vaccination offers substantially more protection for most of the population than being unvaccinated; however, influenza vaccine protection is markedly lower than for most routinely recommended vaccines and is suboptimal," the report concluded.

Osterholm said current flu vaccines play a role in reducing flu illnesses but called the status quo in vaccine research and development unacceptable.

Nasal spray containing live attenuated influenza vaccine protects children aged six months to seven years at a rate of about 83 per cent, according to the review.

Dr. Danuta Skowronski , a physician epidemiologist with the BC Centre for Disease Control, agreed there's room to improve flu vaccines.

"I think increasingly people are understanding there's uncertainty and it behooves health experts to be better able at communicating that," Skowronski said.

"The current vaccine can provide substantial protection and that can be critical to those at high risk of severe complications."

4) Only doctors and nurses can give flu vaccinations.

Pharmacists in four provinces — British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick, can give flu shots. Official regulations for pharmacists are pending in Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, said Jeff Morrison of the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Matthews said that by expanding the scope of practice for pharmacists gives people more options to get immunized, such as coming in for a flu shot during their lunch break.

5) Pregnant women can't be vaccinated.

Getting immunized during pregnancy protects women and infants for the first six months of life when they can't be vaccinated, said Dr. Scott Halperin, head of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax.

If you are pregnant (or planning to get pregnant) it is safe to get immunized with the inactivated influenza vaccine, Alberta Health Services says.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe