Canada delays seasonal-flu vaccine program. Should we be worried?

stockphotopro_998566RYH_18_07_01_0082_jpAn unpublished, unverified Canadian research study, which suggests that people who got flu shots last season are twice as likely to contract swine flu, prompted 12 out of 13 Canadian provinces to hastily suspend their seasonal-flu vaccination programs earlier this week.

In contrast to the simultaneous H1N1 and seasonal-flu vaccination programs being conducted by the U.S. and many other countries around the world, Canada’s provincial governments have decided to put off their seasonal-flu vaccination program until after the H1N1 inoculations are completed, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. The vaccine suspensions however, do not apply to seniors above the age of 65, since they are more prone to catching seasonal flu.

The study – led by Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and Dr. Gaston De Serres of Laval University – has been distributed for peer review and is also being analyzed by an independent panel set up by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

So should you be worried about taking both vaccines together?

Well, the World Health Organization (WHO) certainly isn’t, and it is recommending that countries continue their rollout of flu shots as planned. Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO’s director of vaccine research, was reported by The Globe and Mail to have said last week that the Canadian findings were an international anomaly and could constitute a “study bias.”

Researchers in the U.S., Australia and Britain say their own studies have never yielded similar results.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones was also quoted by the Reuters news agency saying, “(A link between the two) is all but speculative,” adding that he would personally be getting both vaccines as soon as they are ready.

U.S. public-health officials also maintain that it is safe to get both shots at the same time. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Dr. Thomas R. Friedman, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had discounted the Canadian findings emphasizing that seasonal flu shots did not protect against swine flu, but did not create a proclivity for it either.

And here at Children’s, Tom Sandora, MD, MPH, the hospital’s epidemiologist and medical director of Infection Control, says we shouldn’t over-react: “It would be premature to make a decision about stopping seasonal flu vaccination until the study results are released and can be carefully examined,” he says. “For now, the CDC recommends that seasonal flu vaccine continue to be used, and we at Children’s agree with that recommendation.”

Nov. 4, 2009 – Since we published this post, the Public Health Agency of Canada has stated that it is a myth that taking the seasonal flu shot will put you at risk of becoming very ill with H1N1. Canada has resumed its vaccination program.

For more information from Children’s Hospital Boston on the seasonal and H1N1 flus, visit our Flu Information Center