As the federal government and the provinces begin to roll out their mass vaccination campaign against H1N1 influenza this week, support for the inoculations among Canadians has plunged and the public is deeply divided about the need for the immunizations, according to a new survey.
The online poll, conducted by Strategic Counsel for The Globe and Mail and CTV, found that only 49 per cent of Canadians sampled in October wanted to get the new flu shot, a sharp decline from the 62 per cent who said they would in a survey conducted in July.
The Globe's public health reporter Andre Picard wades through the confusion Reader questions on H1N1 answered
Meanwhile, opposition to vaccination has grown sharply over the period, with a majority - 51 per cent - saying they wouldn't get the shots, up from only 38 per cent in July.
Doubts about vaccination are highest in Quebec, where 59 per cent, or nearly six out of every 10 people, said they didn't want to get the vaccine, followed by Ontario, where the figure was 53 per cent.
The growing opposition highlights the difficulty public health officials will have in convincing Canadians they need the shots, and reflects doubts among a significant part of the population that the vaccines have been fully tested and the influenza outbreak isn't much more of a health problem than the common cold, according to the poll.
"There has been a real drop-off in the desire to have the vaccination shot, notwithstanding all the government communication urging Canadians to the contrary," said Tim Woolstencroft, managing partner at Strategic Counsel.
He said doubts about the vaccine are being "driven by those people who don't think it's safe" and reflect a view among a significant portion of the population that public health officials "have been crying wolf too many times" about the threat posed by the virus.
Health Canada approved a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline for protection against the flu last week, and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq praised the shot as "safe and effective." Provincial governments, which are currently ramping up their vaccination efforts, have said they will provide the shot free to everyone who wants it.
Although the Public Health Agency of Canada says the new flu has killed 86 people so far in Canada, the survey found 59 per cent of respondents believe the virus is no more worrisome than the common cold. Only 7 per cent thought it could be life-threatening.
Mr. Woolstencroft said opposition to the vaccination is greatest among young adults aged 18 to 34, of whom 64 per cent are opposed, while the situation is almost reversed for those over 50, with 60 per cent wanting the protection.
The findings suggest a lack of detailed public knowledge of the research into H1N1 influenza, which has been found to be more severe in young, relatively healthy people. Those who are older may have more immunity because they were exposed to previous outbreaks caused by a virus similar to the one now circulating.
Opposition to the vaccine also follows a gender divide, with 56 per cent of women saying no to the shots and only 47 per cent of men.
There is also a growing feeling that the media, which has been carrying a large number of stories about the new flu bug, is overplaying the threat. The media "has hyped up and exaggerated" the danger of the swine flu, according to 78 per cent of those polled, up from 68 per cent of those who agreed with the statement in July.
Although there are growing doubts about the vaccine, Mr. Woolstencroft said many Canadians are taking what he termed "sensible" precautions against falling ill to the H1N1 flu, with 63 per cent taking some action, up from 46 per cent who said they did in July.
The number of people who say they're avoiding crowded places has risen to 32 per cent from 27 per cent. There is also a growing opposition to shaking hands, a practice questioned by 35 per cent, up from 17 per cent.
Worries about the flu are also dampening the enthusiasm among some people for going shopping, with 19 per cent saying they're visiting stores less often, up from 14 per cent in July. Meanwhile, 19 per cent say they're more nervous about taking public transit, up from 16 per cent.
Strategic Counsel polled 1,000 people between Oct. 22 and Oct. 24. Because the respondents were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in an online survey, no estimates of the theoretical sampling error can be calculated, the firm said.