News Canada

Public confusion reined during flu pandemic


As public health officials braced for a second wave of H1N1 last fall, most Canadians were feeling either complacent or confused: 53% thought the number of cases had been low, and more than 40% thought a regular seasonal flu vaccine would protect them from the pandemic.

Four in 10 also felt they didn't have enough information about inoculation. Their biggest concern was potential side effects from the flu shot.

Public confusion, documented in an EKOS survey for Health Canada of more than 4,000 people, helps explain the sweeping education and advertising campaign undertaken in late 2009.

The survey -- recently posted to a federal website-- was con-d ucted Oct. 8-26, 2009, just before the H1N1 vaccine was made available.

In total, the Public Health Agency of Canada spent $41 million on H1N1 communications in 2009, most of it during the autumn and winter "second wave," according to figures provided to QMI Agency.

The attention focused on H1N1 proved well-founded. A nationwide study released Thursday by the Canadian Institute

for Health Information found that H1N1 patients requiring hospitalization were much more likely to need intensive care or ventilators than people admitted to hospital with so-called seasonal flu or pneumonia.

That study compared the 2009 H1N1 outbreak with seasonal flu and pneumonia during the 2007-08 season. Reviewing data from across Canada, it found the median age of those hospitalized with H1N1 was 28. By comparison, the median age for hospitalized seasonal flu sufferers was 71. Among those who required intensive care, the median age was also much lower for H1N1 than for seasonal flu.

EKOS found in its survey that in the weeks just before the H1N1 vaccine was rolled out, about 36% of Canadians thought they were likely to get the shot, but an equal number thought they would not. The more information available, however, the more likely Canadians were to want an H1N1 vaccine.

Having the vaccine recommended by a family doctor increased the chances of Canadians wanting it -- to 56% from 36%. Doctors were seen as the most trusted source of information on the pandemic.

EKOS also ran 14 focus groups and found many people felt they should just "wait and see" how the flu developed in the fall before deciding on whether to get the vaccine.

Those opposed to the vaccine were concerned about its "newness," perceived that it had been "rushed" into production and worried that it had been subject to a "different process for development and testing," the EKOS study said.

The survey is considered accurate to within 1.5 percentage points, 95% of the time.

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