British Columbia will experience "temporary gaps" in flu vaccine availability after what the Ministry of Health is calling an unprecedented demand for the flu shot this season.
Public health officials give out about one million doses of flu vaccine each year, equating to about 20 or 25 per cent of the provincial population conservatively, said Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall. This flu season, nearly 1.4-million British Columbians have received the vaccination – or about 30 to 35 per cent of the population, Dr. Kendall estimated. The ministry says it ordered 1.401-million doses.
Dr. Kendall attributes the spike to greater awareness and the fact that this year's strain – H1N1 – is a descendent of the virus that caused the 2009 pandemic.
"Also, although it's not sending as many people to hospital, it's sending younger people to hospital," Dr. Kendall said. "The age group that typically didn't think they ended up in hospital with influenza … it's actually hitting them. So I think the risk perception is much higher."
About 5,000 more doses expected to arrive the week of Jan. 21 – and another 3,000 the following week – will be distributed based on population. The province has also requested an additional 13,000 doses.
In light of the temporary shortages, British Columbians are advised to take preventive measures such as washing their hands regularly and staying home when sick. However, it may be worthwhile for particularly vulnerable populations – such as those with underlying health conditions – to get one of the few remaining doses, Dr. Kendall said. He also recommended that such vulnerable populations, whether vaccinated or not, ask their doctors for anti-viral drug prescriptions as a precaution.
People with flu-like symptoms are advised to call their doctors, or 811, to seek advice on whether they need professional health care.
"I think a lot of worried well have been turning up in emergency rooms. They don't get much help there – you just get advice on how to look after yourself – but you put a bunch of other people potentially at risk," Dr. Kendall said.
"On the other hand, if you're really feeling deathly ill – short of breath, chest pains, et cetera – please do seek medical help."
Flu vaccines are purchased in advance of flu season, meaning numbers must be estimated each year. This year's supply comprised about 10 per cent more than last year, when approximately 90,000 doses – about $500,000 worth – had to be returned to provincial health authorities.