Toronto Public Health is looking to start early in the planning process for a new flu vaccine that would be more widely used across Canada and could target people as young as 5.
The council of the Canadian arm of the World Health Organization recommended this week that the ministry of health in every country should consider launching a global vaccination program — the largest one the world has ever seen — at the first sign of influenza appearing in the region.
The plan to inject thousands of children in Toronto is probably just the beginning. In 2016, an estimated 8.5 million children between 5 and 11 years old in Canada were not vaccinated for the flu — more than a third of the 20 million Canadians who fall into that age group. If Canada launched a significant influenza vaccination campaign — which could target younger people, not just school-aged children — it could have significant implications for vaccine efforts in the United States, where about 71 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds are not vaccinated.
As the world’s first WHO-designated influenza coordinator for Canada, Dr. Shauna Shearer visited Toronto Public Health two weeks ago to start working on getting that injection program started early in the planning process. She suggested to city staff that they start work on promoting an early, large vaccination campaign, she said.
“It was very exciting for me to be here,” she said. “What I heard is that Canadian families are happy with the way they [the vaccine] are administered and they are definitely ready for expanded vaccination.”
The Toronto Public Health helpline was overwhelmed with calls for information about flu vaccinations in the past few years as the city prepared for the 2017 and 2018 flu seasons. The Toronto Health Institute, meanwhile, saw nearly 300,000 mobile flu vaccine clinics organized by the city throughout those seasons, Shearer said.
The first step in the new planning process was to determine who could be vaccinated under the new plan, Shearer said. Ideally, the campaign would target people aged 5 to 24. But vaccination should begin at around age 5 and start on a larger scale for school-aged children two to three years later.
“I think there is just so much interest in this flu vaccine from families,” Shearer said. “If we could have expanded coverage and reached as many families as possible by age … if it could be like everyone has got that flu shot and we will know how many people have been vaccinated that year … it is going to be easy.”
The Canadian government’s health minister, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, tweeted Thursday that she welcomed the announcement by WHO and the council.
“Health Canada will continue to work closely with our partners and increase vaccination access to those at highest risk,” she said.
Highly effective forms of influenza vaccination — usually flu vaccine plus anti-viral medications — can save the lives of many children, but only certain groups of people can be vaccinated, according to a release from the city. Those groups include children who have already been diagnosed with underlying health problems, pregnant women, people 65 years old and older, people who have chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, obesity, immunosuppressive chronic conditions, and people with cancer.
In cases of severe illness, children should always be isolated from those around them to ensure the highest safety standards.