Amid a spike in influenza cases that has prompted calls for children to get immunized, fewer Manitoba kids have been vaccinated against the seasonal virus than any other age group.
Dr. William Lee, a pediatrician and the incoming vice-president of the Manitoba Pediatric Society, said he’s been seeing slower uptake of the flu shot at his own practice.
“Across the board, specifically from a pediatrics perspective, it’s been a little bit slower than what we’ve typically seen in the past,” he said.
“I think it’s important for us to get out there and make sure that we’re making the public aware that we are seeing flu and we’re seeing severe outcomes with flu.”
The emergency department at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital has seen three times as many children testing positive for influenza than normal for this time of year, the hospital’s medical director and section head of pediatric emergency medicine said Tuesday.
Influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, are among the viruses that have led to what has been described as unprecedented numbers of sick kids at the children’s ER in recent weeks.
The Manitoba Pediatric Society is encouraging families to make sure all eligible children six months old and up get the flu shot, which Li said is one of the best ways to protect children.
Dr. Joss Reimer, the chief medical officer for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, also urged families to get children vaccinated during a news conference on waiting times Thursday.
“A lot of parents don’t take their kids in for an influenza vaccine and right now we really encourage you to do that,” she said.
But so far, the number of young Manitobans who have been vaccinated remains low.
According to data provided by the province showing seasonal influenza vaccination coverage by age group, 6.1 percent of Manitoba children aged four and under have been immunized for the flu, as of Nov. 16. For kids aged five to 14, that number is 6.6 percent.
The province is expected to provide updated numbers on influenza vaccination rates Friday in its weekly COVID-19 and influenza surveillance report.
Li suggests one reason for the slow uptake may be because so much of the recent focus has been on COVID-19.
“I think a lot of it is fueled by the fact that we haven’t seen a lot of flu and so it hasn’t been really a very high topic of discussion in the last couple of years.”
Data from the two full flu seasons leading up to the pandemic shows a considerably higher rate of vaccinations for children under the age of 15 than have been reported so far this year.
It should be noted, however, there’s still time for people to get the flu shot this season.
The Manitoba government’s provincial flu shot campaign runs from mid-October until early December, according to a provincial spokesperson.
This year’s ad campaign includes “billboards, digital ads, social media ads, print, radio and poster boards in City of Winnipeg facilities,” they said.
But some health experts say there is more the province could do to increase uptake.
Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital, said he’d like to see the province ramp up its messaging about why it’s important for kids to get vaccinated.
There’s often a perception that the flu isn’t serious, he said.
“It can certainly be quite severe,” said Lagacé-Wiens. “It can knock out kids and young adolescents just like it can knock out older people for days with high fever and cough.”
“It’s not a mild illness, it’s not a cold, and I think that messaging needs to go out. Especially with younger kids too, it can be worse than COVID, and we had no trouble, you know, making sure our kids got vaccinated for COVID.”
He said there can also be a perception that the flu vaccines don’t work. Lagacé-Wiens explained while there are years when the shot isn’t a good match for the virus circulating, data he’s seen so far suggests that’s not the case this year.
Even when it doesn’t reduce infections, it helps reduce the severity of illness, he said.
Epidemiologist Souradet Shaw said he believes public health is likely already taking steps towards more targeted interventions.
But he’d like to see “more concerted efforts to bring the flu vaccine to the community, coupled with campaigns advertising the availability of the flu vaccine in community settings” sooner than later, he said by email.
Shaw, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, said in addition to “obvious things like in-school clinics,” he’d like to see drop-in clinics at shopping malls “and other family-friendly settings, such as community centers” considered.
Shaw added he’d especially like to see those measures taken in areas with historically low uptake, or where there might be more people vulnerable to the flu.
He points to community-led clinics held during the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines being offered at shopping malls during H1N1 as examples.
“In a nutshell, make it easy for people to get their flu vaccines by bringing it to them.”