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A syringe with the flu vaccine sits ready for use at the annual meeting of the Ontario Hospital Association in Toronto on Nov. 4, 2013.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Fewer than four in ten Canadians have been immunized against influenza, and the principal reason for not getting the flu shot is mistrust of vaccines, according to a new national poll.

"Fully a third of those who won't get a shot – or almost a fifth of the adult population – make this choice because they think vaccines are dangerous," said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research, which conducted the poll.

"This is an unusually high level of misinformation," he added.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that everyone over the age of six months get inoculated against influenza annually, describing the vaccine as "safe and well tolerated."

The survey showed that 39 per cent of adults have received a shot so far this flu season, with another 11 per cent saying they plan to do so.

Almost half the population, 49 per cent, said they had no intention of getting vaccinated. Asked why, they offered up a number of reasons:

  • Mistrust of vaccines, 36 per cent;
  • They never get the flu, 35 per cent;
  • Inconvenience, 5 per cent;
  • Too time consuming, 4 per cent;
  • Lack of availability, 3 per cent;
  • Other, unstated reasons, 17 per cent.

The poll shows that the reasons for refusing vaccines vary a lot depending on where people live, as well as their income, education and age.

Fear of vaccines is most common among those with low incomes (44 per cent of those with family incomes of less than $40,000 a year), and the less well educated (41 per cent of those with only a high-school degree.)

Invulnerability to illness is felt most strongly by the wealthy (48 per cent of those with income above $100,000) and among university graduates (41 per cent).

Lack of vaccine availability was cited most often by residents of B.C. (14 per cent) while long waits were seen as a problem principally in Alberta (10 per cent) and the Prairies (nine per cent).

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the 2013-14 flu season is of normal severity but a little later than usual, meaning infections have probably not peaked yet.

In a normal season, 10-20 per cent of the population contracts the flu, and there are roughly 20,000 hospitalizations and 4,000 deaths.

Currently, Quebec and Alberta are the hardest hit by the flu, but there are pockets of influenza in Ontario and across the Atlantic provinces. The most common strain of the flu this year is H1N1 – which caused worldwide alarm when it was a pandemic strain in 2009. Normally, babies and the elderly are the most vulnerable because they have weaker immune systems, but H1N1 strikes young adults particularly hard.

This year, there is a disproportionate number of hospitalizations and deaths in the 20-64-year-old demographic and media coverage of the deaths of children, in particular, has prompted spikes in demand for flu shots – and shortages of vaccine – in some parts of the country.

The Forum poll shows that Canadians who do get a flu shot turn to a variety of providers. Thirty-five per cent of said they received their vaccination at a doctor's office, 22 per cent at a pharmacy, 23 per cent at a free-standing flu clinic and nine per cent at work or at school. (The balance, seven per cent, said they got the shot somewhere else.)

Getting shots from a pharmacist – a recent innovation in several provinces – is particularly popular with people who are more wealthy and educated. Seniors depend largely on physicians, while young people predominantly get their shots at free-standing clinics.

The poll was conducted January 16-17. A total of 1,779 Canadian adults were surveyed by phone, using an interactive voice response system. The results are considered accurate within plus or minus two per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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