Manitoba parents urged to get flu shots for kids, whose vaccination rates are lowest among all age groups

Amid a spike in influenza cases that has prompted calls for children to get immunized, fewer Manitoba kids have been vaccinated against the seasonal disease than any other age group.

Dr. William Li, a pediatrician and the incoming president of the Manitoba Pediatric Society, said he’s been seeing slower uptake on 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.

“And so I think certainly it’s important to try to get the message out there and make sure that everyone knows that it’s very much real…. We’re very much seeing kids getting sick and getting really sick from influenza.”

The emergency department at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital has seen three times as many kids 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’s 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 kids 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 kids vaccinated during a news conference on wait 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 per cent of Manitoba children aged four and under have been immunized for the flu, as of Nov. 16. For kids age five to 14, that number is 6.6 per cent. 

The province is expected to provide updated numbers on influenza vaccination rates Friday in its weekly COVID-19 and influenza surveillance report

Li said he’s already had patients land in hospital due to the flu this season. He’s recommending all eligible children get the flu shot. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

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 fuelled from 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 is a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital (Submitted by Philippe R. S. Lagacé-Wiens)

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. 

Souradet Shaw is an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. (Shelley Shaw)

Epidemiologist Souradet Shaw said he believes public health is likely already taking steps toward 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 centres” 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.”