Every year, Canada imports millions of doses of flu vaccine from Europe and elsewhere. For most countries, that’s fine, but this country is getting a taste of the whole world flu virus even though the typical flu season in Canada lasts just a few weeks — compared to 10 to 30 months here in the U.S.
Canada’s seasonal shortage of flu vaccine has been compounded by the rapid growth of the seasonal flu virus globally. Scientists worry that the seasonal flu virus could become a threat to our ability to protect ourselves from pandemics — and this winter’s vaccine is looking fairly well matched to last winter’s circulating flu virus in the U.S.
When Canada has imported a larger supply from, say, Australia, it gets a flu season just like we do.
But Canada could also benefit from more seasonal flu vaccines coming from places like Taiwan, Ukraine, and the Philippines — where people have less access to flu shots than we do in this country.
The U.S. should also offer more of these flu shots to places like Venezuela and Senegal — where the seasonal flu vaccine is especially scarce.
All these countries have some amount of flu disease, but not the many millions of seasonal flu deaths of the U.S. and Europe, where everybody gets vaccinated every year.
Vaccines are a vast and expensive endeavor. This season, governments, the drug companies, and others have been worrying about the shortcomings of the current vaccines.
Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it expects to fine-tune two safety concerns, including a the ability of the vaccine to stay intact after a person breathes deeply in a cold air.
In December, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb also ordered seven drug companies to reformulate their vaccines, in addition to other fixes, so that they are as protective as possible against the two primary strains of the current flu circulating.
Health officials and drug companies argue that without the actual seasonal flu shots, no vaccine will be as effective. In many cases, an outbreak caused by a flu strain might need to be treated with the seasonal vaccine, which reduces illness by 50 percent. While it’s not a perfect solution, public health officials say, it’s an improvement over any other vaccine.
They also argue that by increasing the amount of what’s available, public health officials and drug companies will make vaccines safer and more effective. Plus, there is considerable research showing that some vaccines provide long-term health benefits, like preventing childhood cancers and protecting older people from mental and physical illnesses.
That said, as everyone knows, flu is unpredictable. Last year’s flu was bad, but everyone is still waiting for the next version of the annual vaccine to start circulating. (One research group hopes to publish a study on this topic soon.)
But even if an affordable and effective flu vaccine developed overnight could be implemented around the world today, the odds are most certainly that there will be some bad year, where a massive global epidemic starts.
To stop this year’s epidemic from ever happening, a global vaccine effort is desperately needed.