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Flu shots go on despite vaccine halt

Oct 30 2012

The province's plan to kick its annual flu-clinic campaign into high gear this week will not be affected by its decision to suspend two flu vaccines produced by the pharmaceutical firm Novartis.

The B.C. government announced Saturday it will stop using the Novartis vaccines - sold as Agriflu and Fluad in Canada - on the recommendation of Health Canada. Novartis supplies just 30 per cent of B.C.'s flu vaccines.

The remaining 70 per cent or 800,000 doses of the vaccine - called Vaxigrip by manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur Canada - will continue to be distributed through public health flu clinics, pharmacies, doctors' offices and health authorities, said provincial health officer Perry Kendall.

"The majority of our supply is unaffected," Kendall said Saturday. "I'm pretty confident that we will have sufficient vaccine available for everybody who wants it. We're certainly not likely to run out in the near future."

If the Novartis vaccines are cleared for use, they will be added back into the supply, Kendall said.

Health Canada followed the lead of several European countries - Italy, Switzerland and Germany - on Friday when it recommended that health facilities across the country temporarily stop using flu vaccines from Novartis.

That was based on a report from the company Wednesday that it had detected small clumps of protein particles in some batches made at the pharmaceutical firm's production plant in Italy. Protein clumping or the presence of aggregates in the flu vaccine in the past has been associated with allergic reactions in the form of itchy eyes, facial swelling and shortness of breath, Kendall said.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control issued a notice to all health authorities advising them of Health Canada's recommendation to stop using the Novartis products.

"People who have already been vaccinated do not have to worry," Kendall said. "The vaccines that have been used in B.C. have passed Health Canada's inspection systems with no concerns."

A vaccine is made of dead, harmless bits of virus associated with the disease it is working to immunize against.

B.C.'s health officer stressed there have been no problems with vaccines distributed to date in Canada or B.C. or anywhere else that he is aware of.

Health Canada is expected to have results as early as today of risk assessments being conducted by Italian and Swiss health authorities, to better assess why the suspension was called for in Europe.

When protein clumps were found in a batch of flu vaccines in B.C. in 20002001, the provincial health officer determined the risk of allergic reactions was outweighed by the vaccine's benefits for immune-compromised people.

Anyone who works with patients has been told by the Vancouver Island Health Authority this year to get a flu shot or wear a mask.

The temporary vaccine suspension shouldn't affect that directive, Kendall said. ceharnett@timescolonist.com