Every year, millions of dollars are poured into the health care system to ensure all young children receive the vaccines they need to remain healthy. By making childhood vaccination a priority, the government is rightly preventing countless unnecessary incidences of illness.
But too many adults assume the need for immunizations stops after childhood. As a matter of fact, it is recommended that adults get vaccinated on a regular basis for a number of conditions, including shingles, measles, and the flu. A recent poll of CARP members showed that only 1 in 5 respondents have reviewed their immunization status with a doctor in the past year – and nearly half contracted shingles or know someone who contracted shingles before they had an opportunity to vaccinate themselves against the disease.
CARP convened an expert panel to tackle the complex and important issue of adult immunizations on the first day of our Annual General Meeting and Chapter Congress in late October. Hosted by our Executive Vice President Susan Eng, the panel discussed the reasons behind low rates of adult immunizations, and explored ways of opening up access to vaccines.
Among the panelists were Dr. Allison McGeer, who, along with the late Dr. Donald Low, was Canada’s calm presence in the face of SARS. Ruth Ackerman, the Director of Professional Practice Development at Shoppers Drug Mart and Jim Armour, the Individual Director of Advocacy on the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association’s Board of Directors spoke about the role that pharmacists can play in adult administering and promoting adult immunization.
Dr. McGeer explained that vaccines for children are deliberately organized to be as simple as possible, set up according to a routine schedule and frequently delivered in schools, to ensure that parents don’t have to worry about keeping track of their child’s immunization status. Furthermore, virtually all childhood vaccines are paid for by provincial health care programs. No similar system or funding exists for adults, leaving adults to pay for immunizations out-of-pocket, uncertain about which vaccines they need and which they’ve already received.
One solution to this problem, Mr. Armour suggested, would be harnessing the power of pharmacists to deliver necessary adult immunizations. Pharmacists are among the most accessible health care professionals. Enabling them to deliver vaccines could allow huge amounts of underserved patients to receive immunizations. In many provinces, pharmacists are already permitted to give flu vaccines.
Ms. Ackerman noted that Ontarian pharmacists vaccinated a million patients during last year’s flu season. Just two years prior, before pharmacists were allowed to receive injection training and give vaccines, zero patients received flu shots in pharmacies. What is the reason for this massive uptick? Those who require vaccines, particularly the elderly, can’t always easily access clinics and doctors, but a visit to a pharmacist in a local pharmacy is a much easier prospect. Pharmacies are ever-present in most communities, and many are open on weekends and during longer hours than most health clinics and doctors’ offices. As a result, more adults – and more high-risk patients – are able to receive vaccines easily.
To continue widening access to vaccines, the public needs to understand why immunization for adults, especially seniors, is so important. With some vaccines as expensive as $200, there is a great need for advocacy to convince government bodies that these costs are worth paying to save lives, avoid hospitalizations, and prevent painful illness. Vaccination is, after all, not just an important personal health decision, but one which carries public health benefits for entire communities. According to Immunize Canada, immunization is the single most cost-effective healthcare investment available to Canadians, and has saved more lives in Canada in the past fifty years than any other form of health intervention. Encouraging adult immunization ensures that lives will continue to be saved, and that all Canadians can remain healthy and prevent infection as they age.
The panel concluded by each expert calling for a greater emphasis on convenient, patient-centered care. Between providing patients with incentives to get vaccinated, encouraging pharmacists, and physicians to administer and promote vaccination, and opening clinics with nurse practitioners in pharmacies, there are many possible options to broaden access to immunizations and health care for Canada’s most vulnerable seniors. As a first step towards greater accessibility, Immunize Canada has an ImmunizeCA App, which allows users to easily keep track of their families’ vaccinations, access information about recommended immunizations, and receive alerts about disease outbreaks.