As flu shot clinics begin to roll out across the country, some public health experts say the key to boosting immunization rates is to go viral.
They are advocating an aggressive social-media push to try to persuade Canadians to get the shot – and dispel myths propagated by anti-vaccination websites and YouTube videos that claim inoculation is linked to serious side effects.
Influenza can be deadly, and while no exact numbers are collected, it is estimated that thousands of Canadians die from the flu or its complications each year. Despite this, less than 30 per cent of Canadians 12 and older got the flu shot last year, according to Statistics Canada.
Part of the low turnout is blamed on public skepticism and fears, fuelled by captivating anecdotes and fear-mongering Facebook pages warning about the dangers of vaccines and popping up on flu-related Google searches.
Public health campaigns urging people to get immunized are far less gripping. Some infection-control experts say perhaps the time has come to fight fire with fire.
"I think we need to do a better job at the social media side. We've been rather tentative in that, especially in the health world," said Bonnie Henry, medical director of communicable disease control at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
"We need to do better at seeing when those pieces of misinformation get out there and stop them."
As doctors know all too well, being a medical expert doesn't make you a media expert. But there are signs that vaccine-related myths can be dispelled.
Dr. Henry works with Immunize Canada, an advocacy group, and said the organization used the Internet to move quickly to help combat rumours swirling online that the 2009 H1N1 pandemic vaccine was linked to Gulf War Syndrome.
Although it didn't stamp out the misinformation completely, the move by public health professionals to directly address the myth did have an impact, Dr. Henry said.
Allison McGeer, one of Canada's pre-eminent infection control specialists, says public health campaigns must be able to inform, educate and convince people the same way as wildly inaccurate viral videos.
"The more you know about influenza and [the] influenza vaccine, the more likely you are to get your flu shot," said Dr. McGeer, an infectious disease specialist based at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. "The evidence is very strong in favour of people getting the influenza vaccine."
But very few average Canadians have the time or patience to spend weeks analyzing data that proves the safety and effectiveness of the flu shot, Dr. McGeer said.
So the challenge is to create compelling, easily digestible information that can spark a widespread conversation on social media or other online forums.
"That's not something that most people like me or people in public health are trained to do, or necessarily have the time to do," Dr. McGeer said. "It's a real challenge trying to get information to people in this day and age that is helpful to them. The Internet makes it so difficult."
Flu shot clinics are already running in some parts of Canada, and most provinces are expected to roll out their programs in the coming weeks. It's impossible to predict what this year's flu season will be like, doctors say.
Last year was one of the worst flu seasons of the past few years, Dr. Henry said, because of an H3N2 virus that hit many elderly people particularly hard.
This year's flu shot contains one influenza B virus and two influenza A viruses. Dr. McGeer acknowledges that the flu shot isn't perfect and that it doesn't protect everyone.
But until a medical breakthrough occurs, she said, the current flu shot is the best way to help prevent illness and flu-related deaths.