Can’t Canada do Better When it Comes to Vaccines?

Vaccines like those for pneumococcal disease are a key health intervention, protecting
individuals and the health care system alike. So why doesn’t Canada do a better job in making sure
its public adult vaccination programs include the latest vaccines?

It should come as no surprise that the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) believes that one of the most important health interventions for older Canadians is staying up-to-date with the latest approved and expert recommended vaccines.

Here’s why, in case you need a reminder:

  • Our immune systems age. This means that as we age, our immune systems become less robust, resulting in greater vulnerability to infection and more severe consequences from getting sick, including hospitalization or worse;
  • When you are older and get very sick, you run the risk of “functional decline.” Functional decline can mean a loss of independence, often associated with a deterioration in mobility and a decline in ability to participate in a variety of activities of daily living (like preparing meals, engaging in your community etc.).

Simply put, vaccines are a way to protect your health and independence. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) — and thus CARP — recommend in particular that seniors get vaccines for these five preventable illnesses: covid, influenza, shingles (herpes zoster), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and pneumococcal disease (pneumonia).

But here’s the issue. While the latest, best available vaccines may be approved by Health Canada and recommended by NACI in Canada, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are publicly funded across Canada. For instance, did you know that the adult pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccines available in most provinces through our free public vaccination programs were first approved several decades ago? There are newer pneumococcal vaccines with more expected to be made available soon.

CARP believes that governments must do better and invest to continuously update their adult vaccination programs with the latest approved and recommended vaccines. This would provide Canadian seniors and those most at risk from serious illnesses with better access to the latest vaccines that protect against debilitating and even potential lethal conditions.

Pneumococcal Disease

Pneumococcal disease is a group of contagious diseases caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae (S. pneumoniae). This bacterium commonly causes serious infections and diseases, such as infection of the lungs (pneumonia), swelling of the brain (meningitis) and blood infections (septicemia). Health Canada notes the bacteria causing this illness can become resistant to the drugs used to treat it, which makes preventing such illness through vaccination even more important.

According to a recent CARP survey, while a significant number of CARP members know about pneumococcal disease and vaccines, only 52% of respondents were aware of the severity – specifically, that pneumonia coupled with the flu ranks among the top 10 leading causes of death for Canadian adults. The CARP survey also showed that a vast majority of respondents (more than 90%) want the federal and provincial/territorial governments to fund and encourage greater use of pneumococcal vaccines, including new ones.

Compared to the cost of vaccinations, the cost of people getting sick from a preventable illness is huge, without even considering the personal cost to patients and their families, including potential loss of life. A recent study of Ontario health records from 2012-14 found there had been almost 700,000 cases of community acquired pneumonia in the province over a three-year period, most of them in those aged 65 and older. Each case requiring hospitalization cost the health system more than $12,500. Those needing intensive care cost far more and even those who didn’t need hospitalization cost the system an average of almost $1,600. Costs have only gone up substantially in the 10 years since this data was generated.

However, vaccination rates are not where they should be to ensure Canadians and their health systems get maximum benefit.

For example, Canadian public health authorities are striving for a goal of 80% vaccine coverage for pneumococcal disease by Canadians aged 65 and older but the current rate is just 55%. That means our health system – and not to mention the individuals involved – is barely getting half the benefit it could from this simple preventive measure.

“As we did during the COVID-19 pandemic, we urgently need a concerted effort by all our governments to ensure that there are free and easily accessible adult vaccination programs that include the latest vaccines to provide the best possible protection and health for seniors,” said Bill VanGorder, Chief Advocacy and Education Officer of CARP.

He added that we can also ensure greater vaccine coverage through better communication to inform people about the value and safety of vaccines, the seriousness of the illnesses they prevent and how to get them at no cost.

“At a time when our health system is at a breaking point, we need to do everything we can to keep people well, especially seniors,” he said. “Investing in ensuring greater use of vaccines will not only prevent individuals from suffering from illness but will give our health system a much-needed leg-up.”

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