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In a move he expects other provinces to monitor and perhaps follow, B.C.'s top doctor says health-care workers who come into contact with patients during flu season must be vaccinated or wear masks – making B.C. the first jurisdiction in Canada with such a policy.

Provincial health officer Perry Kendall said during a news conference on Thursday that health-care worker vaccination rates have historically been lower than 50 per cent. He said the new policy will protect patients from a disease that causes more deaths annually than all other vaccine-preventable illnesses combined. Several hospitals south of the border have similar policies.

"I have alerted my colleagues across the country to this initiative and I think we will see some of them following us," he told reporters.

Getting all health-care workers in his own province on board might not prove easy. The B.C. Nurses' Union has said influenza vaccines should be promoted through education, not enforced. The union declined to respond to Dr. Kendall's announcement on Thursday and plans to meet with the Health Employers Association of B.C. next week on the issue.

Flu season typically runs from late November to the end of March. The new policy applies to all health-care workers, health-authority staff, students, contractors, and vendors who come into contact with patients.

Bonnie Henry, director of communicable disease prevention at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, wrote in a statement that patients should not have to worry about getting sick courtesy of their care providers.

Patients in hospital tend to be more vulnerable to influenza than others. B.C.'s Ministry of Health said studies have shown health-care workers who have influenza frequently continue to work, many not realizing they are sick.

Dr. Kendall said health-care workers were given the option of the flu shot or the mask to reduce the risk of opposition.

"Making just vaccination mandatory could potentially lead to more issues for us," he said.

When asked what could be done if a health-care worker refused to be vaccinated or wear a mask, Dr. Kendall said the situation would be similar to refusing to wash their hands. He said discipline protocols are in place.

The first health-care facility in the United States to require an influenza vaccination as a condition of employment was the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle in 2005.

Beverly Hagar, a registered nurse at the facility, welcomed Dr. Kendall's announcement and said in an interview the more that can be done to protect patients the better.

She said in an interview that the Washington State Nurses Association filed a grievance after Virginia Mason introduced the policy because it wasn't negotiated. She said the association won, meaning nurses could not be fired for refusing vaccinations.

Several organizations followed Virginia Mason's lead, and in 2009, New York became the first state requiring flu vaccines for all health-care workers.

During the news conference, Dr. Kendall was also asked about a new strain of swine flu. He said the United States has had more than 200 cases, but Canada has had none.

"I'm sure at some point in time we'll see the H3N2 variant in pigs in Canada. Currently, the disease is mild and there have been no fatalities and people recover from it and symptoms are just like ordinary influenza," he said.

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