Secretary General, International Federation on Ageing
Unity only happens when we all walk together, and now is the time to end immunization inequity in Canada.
The pandemic has touched us all in very unique and painful ways. This word, “COVID-19,” has struck fear in many of us, especially those whose families and friends have been affected, some dying, some surviving the virus but being left with considerable functional changes, and some very fortunate to have escaped serious symptoms. Recently, the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, said to Canadians, “We might be tired of COVID-19 but it’s not tired of us. The virus has no ideology or beliefs; its only goal is to spread.”
Before, during, and while the world recovers from the pandemic, what’s important to individuals of all ages — including older people and those with chronic conditions — is their function, their ability to live independently, and their ability to contribute to their family, community, and society.
While the world eagerly anticipates a vaccine to combat COVID-19, we must also recognize the serious and often life-altering complications of well-known vaccine-preventable diseases such as influenza, pneumonia, shingles, and pertussis, all of which affect seniors on a daily basis. Despite the fact that these populations are particularly susceptible to the infections and over-represented in morbidity and mortality rates globally, the long-term adverse impact on the functional ability of older adults and the social and economic burden somehow seems less important in the big scheme of things.
Tackling vaccination inequity
Canada’s immunization system is not equitable. Disparities across provinces and territories in adult immunization policies and practices are alive and growing. Our current environment is especially challenging for seniors, some of whom are only able to be vaccinated at the doctor’s office for shingles —and yet, many of those offices are currently closed or mostly virtual. This is not the case for influenza vaccines, yet it’s equally unacceptable to “not know” where and when the high-dose flu vaccine will be available, or when supplies of the standard-doses are replenished. Then there’s pneumonia, which ranks the sixth leading cause of hospitalization and the eighth most common cause of death in Canada, yet receives little attention compared with other respiratory infections. Vaccination rates remain shamefully low across the nation.
Public awareness of adult vaccines in Canada, particularly in comparison to childhood vaccines, remains inadequate. The values and needs of those with underlying health conditions and older adults are insufficiently reflected in public health messages on immunization. There’s a real and urgent need to improve messages and campaigns toward people taking actions to be vaccinated with confidence.
Provinces and territories alike should strive to learn from one another, sharing realized best practices that optimize adult vaccination rates. While the COVID-19 pandemic may present an opportunity to reassess existing infrastructure and respond to current roadblocks and impediments for change. Streamlining immunization surveillance through a robust, all-inclusive, accessible immunization registry would enable Canadians to become more engaged in their immunizations and help to ensure timely vaccination.
Collaboration is the way forward to improve outcomes
The International Federation on Ageing is driving policy to action by calling on professional, patient, and advocacy organizations, together with all levels of government to increase their investment in educating and encouraging older adults and those with chronic diseases to be vaccinated against infectious diseases. No person, young or older, is expendable. Older people carry the collective wisdom of our societies. They are valued and valuable members of our families and communities.