Canada shrugs off cost of flu vaccination campaign

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s top medical official defended the national H1N1 vaccination campaign on Thursday, and said the costs of doing nothing would be far higher than the money spent immunizing millions of people.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer David Butler-Jones speaks during a news conference about swine flu outbreak in Ottawa April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Blair Gable

The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing medical data from various levels of government, said Canada has so far spent C$1.5 billion ($1.4 billion) on the campaign -- more than twice as much as officials initially estimated.

But Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer, said millions of people could become sick and thousands die if there was no vaccination program.

So far around 20 percent of Canada’s 34 million population have been immunized, and there is no sign the virus has peaked, he said.

“This is a preventable disease. That’s the key thing,” said Butler-Jones, who declined to give a cost for the campaign.

“There’s the cost for actually doing what we’re doing and the cost if we don’t, in terms of millions of illnesses, all those people off (work), lost productivity, people in hospital ... and people dying as a result of uncontrolled infection,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

“That’s going to be so many times what we’re spending.”

The vaccination campaign has been dogged with problems. Initial apathy was replaced by hours-long lines at vaccination clinics after a couple of high-profile deaths, and accompanied by anger that some people seemed to be jumping the line.

Complaints centers on flu shots for hospital board members, hockey players and -- according to initial reports -- prisoners held by Canada’s forces in Afghanistan. The defense ministry later denied that was the case.

The H1N1 shot is currently available only for children, the elderly and those considered at high risk of complications. Butler-Jones said all Canadians who wanted the shot would be able to have it by the end of December.

“There’s no evidence that the virus has peaked ... we’ve still got a long way to go,” he said.

The Globe and Mail said the cost of obtaining and injecting a single dose of the vaccine was initially put at C$16. This rose to C$30, partly as demand surged unexpectedly last month.

An Ekos poll for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Thursday said 53 percent of Canadians felt the level of concern about H1N1 was exaggerated.

Separately, health officials said children aged between three and nine would only need one dose of the vaccine as opposed to two. Butler-Jones said this would free up doses for other sections of the population deemed to be high-risk.

($1=$1.06 Canadian)

Reporting by David Ljunggren