Opinion: Now is the time to ensure Canadians have trusted sources for health facts so we can all avoid conspiracy theories and make evidence-informed decisions about vaccines. (CDC photo on Unsplash)

COVID-19 threat makes getting the flu shot more important than ever

Letter from Melissa MacKay and Anthony Piscitelli

With Canada’s flu season nearly here, the threat of COVID-19 makes getting the flu shot more important than ever.

Flu outbreaks risk straining our health care system when we most need hospital beds to treat those seriously infected by COVID-19.

Unfortunately, myths about the flu vaccine meant only about four in 10 Canada’s were vaccinated last year.

Surprisingly, for example, the same number of Canadian’s believe the flu shot can cause the flu. The reality is the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu.

Not only does the flu vaccine decrease the likelihood of getting sick, it also means those that do get sick recover faster.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that the flu vaccine lowers the risk of needing to visit an intensive care (ICU) unit by 82 per cent.

In addition, vaccinated adults who visited an ICU because of the flu spent four fewer days in the hospital.

Yet myths about the flu and vaccines in general, persist on social media and in society. The perpetuation of these myths represents a clear threat to community wellbeing and human lives.

Measles is a highly contagious, potentially fatal disease transmitted through respiratory droplets, which can cause serious complications after recovery.

Sound familiar?

Before the 1960s, over 300,000 Canadians caught the measles virus every year, but in 1998 after widespread measles vaccinations, it was declared eliminated in Canada.

Similarly, the US declared the measles eliminated in 2000.

Unfortunately, actress Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaxxers have successfully resurrected the threat of measles in the United States and Canada. McCarthy has caused people to fear a vaccine by promoting false conclusions from a retracted academic paper.

Measles cases in Canada remain rare, but in the United States, they are now at a 25 year high.

COVID-19 makes the threat of lies and misinformation about vaccines an urgent health and economic problem.

Surveys show that between 60 per cent to 78 per cent of Canadians would likely get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available in Canada.

These numbers are a good start but could be easily eroded by antivaccination groups spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media.

Unfortunately, when a COVID-19 vaccine is available the need to widely vaccinate millions of Canadians, likely starting with the most vulnerable, will give the McCarthy’s of the world scary stories to share with those who are ill-informed.

The reality is, some people die every day, and if you widely vaccinate a population, some coincidental deaths will occur around the same time as a vaccine was administered.

In Australia, for example, the World Health Organization estimates that about ten infants will die a day after receiving routine vaccinations. While extremely unfortunate, these deaths do not indicate a problem with the vaccines but simply reflect the death rate in the first year of human life.

When the first person dies a few days after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, can we trust social media trolls to carefully note that the cause of death was unrelated to the vaccine?

Does our mainstream media have the patience to wait on reporting any information until a careful examination has determined the cause of death?

Will Canadians trust the rigorous on-going process that occurs to monitor the safety of vaccines as they are distributed?

While it is obvious the trolls cannot be trusted to act responsibly, this flu season presents an opportunity for public health units to inform the media and citizenry about vaccines.

Promotional campaigns should go beyond encouraging the flu shot to demonstrating the safety of vaccine programs. Increasing Canadians’ understanding of the rigorous development and approval process and on-going vaccine safety monitoring measures will ensure that when a COVID-19 vaccine is available Canadians will feel comfortable receiving it.

Public health officials should also work with the media to promote accurate, timely information on vaccines while proactively addressing COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Public health units and the media must work together to ensure that easily understood and accurate information is widely shared on social media platforms.

Public health officials should assign staff to directly address widely shared misinformation on social media and within the comments of articles appearing in the mainstream media.

Now is the time to ensure Canadians have trusted sources for health facts so we can all avoid conspiracy theories and make evidence-informed decisions about vaccines.

By Melissa MacKay and Anthony Piscitelli.

Melissa MacKay, MPH, is a PhD Student in Public Health at the University of Guelph and a faculty member at Conestoga College. Dr. Anthony Piscitelli, PhD is a professor for the Conestoga College Public Service Program.

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