Health care workers face mandatory flu shots

B.C. health officer announces influenza vaccines will be mandatory for all health care workers in the province.

B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall announced on August 23 that all health care providers will now be required to get a flu shot each year or cover up with masks.

The announcement made B.C. the first province in the country to make the annual influenza vaccines mandatory. Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Rob Parker said vaccination rates in the province have remained stagnant since education campaigns were launched in 2000.

“Over that time, the rates really haven’t gone up,” he said.

In the province about 40 per cent of all health care workers are vaccinated each year. Chair of the B.C. Nurses Union East Kootenay Region Patt Shuttleworth said the union has always encouraged those eligible for the vaccine to get it.

“BCNU is concerned with patient safety first and foremost and have always encouraged our members to avail themselves of the flu vaccine,” she said.

Parker said much of the workforce in the health industry are in great health and prime candidates for a flu shot, and there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the shot is 80 per cent effective against influenza.

“If they do get sick their symptoms will be reduced,” he said.

Shuttleworth said providing a good opportunity for vaccination programs and access to masks should a worker not be eligible for the vaccine is key to the program’s success.

“We hope that the health authorities make it easy for nurses to have access to the vaccine and that it is available in sufficient quantities,” she said. “For those who choose not to be vaccinated – and there are some legitimate reasons for this – masks will need to be readily available in sufficient quantities.”

Shuttleworth said another great way to prevent the spread of influenza is for health care workers to stay home when they do catch something, but she worries about reprimands for missing a shift due to illness.

“We also hope the employer will encourage nurses to stay home if they show any signs of illness and not enter them into their attendance programs for this,” she said.

Parker said that those who receive a vaccine are much less likely to take time off work for illness and the risk of spreading the virus to a patient is greatly reduced.

“It’s really about patient safety,” he said.

Parker said the most effective solution is prevention, and the health authorities across the province use three methods: vaccination, followed by mask use and hand washing.

“If you don’t get it, you can’t spread it,” he said.

Parker said there are common myths about the vaccine, the most prominent being that it can actually cause illness. He said that simply isn’t the case with the flu shot.

“The influenza vaccine is a killed virus vaccine, so it can’t give you the flu,” he stressed. “It’s biologically impossible.”

The most common side effect of the shot is soreness in the arm. If an illness does appear shortly after the vaccine, Parker said the most common explanation is that the virus was already in the person’s body before the shot was delivered. He also said it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to kick in.

“There’s lots of respiratory viruses out there,” he said.

Some recipients of the vaccine do experience allergic reactions, and Parker said those people should obviously avoid getting it.

“They certainly shouldn’t get the influenza vaccine or any other vaccine if they are truly allergic to it,” he said, adding that it is a rare occurrence.

Each year the vaccine is modified to include different strains, and Parker said there is no risk getting it year after year. In fact, with a yearly vaccine, recipients are actually improving the number of strains they are immune to.

“You build up a greater panel of diversity,” he said. “You’re actually getting more protections.”

There have always been flu clinics offered to health care workers, and the vaccine has always been free for them. Parker was unsure what the new program will look like, but said there is plenty of opportunity for health care workers to get their shot.

“Health care workers just like the public can get it anywhere,” he said. “They’ve got lots of time to get it.”

Health care workers can also access it in their own work place and they can get the vaccine while on shift, Parker said. The vaccine has been offered for free for the past 20 years.

“Access is actually quite easy,” he said.

Interior Health has not yet announced the 2012 flu vaccine clinic schedule, but the information will be listed on its website, www.interiorhealth.ca in the coming weeks.