The World Health Organization will convene a summit in Geneva this month to stem a possible global flu pandemic. The WHO says the world is not prepared for this threat. This is highlighted by the United States' current critical shortage of flu vaccines. The shortage is causing a boom for health clinics in neighboring Canada.
As the flu vaccination shortage in the United States persists, a rapidly increasing number of Americans are coming to Canadian border cities for inoculation.
Some Americans, speaking outside a clinic here in Vancouver, drove 225 kilometers from Seattle to get their shots.
"It took us about two hours to get up here, but we're just very glad the Canadian people are welcoming to us in order to come up here and get the flu shot," said one of the Americans.
"I'm mostly shocked; I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm actually mad, but I'm glad it's up here and we can enjoy the rest of the day, but otherwise it's very frustrating. Cause something that could have taken fifteen minutes is taking four hours of my time," added another one.
Under Canada's public healthcare system, any individuals at-risk for illness and anybody over the age of 65 can receive a flu shot for free. Others can be vaccinated for a small fee.
Here in British Columbia, one million doses of the vaccine were prearranged for the local population.
Peter Roaf, of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, says Americans seeking to be vaccinated in Canada are being injected with surplus vaccine from outside the original supply. He says the demand has been increasing from across the United States.
"The normal supply to the people in the Vancouver Coastal Health authority area is already provided for, 300,000 doses out of one million allotted to British Columbia," he said. "Outside of that supply is an additional extra supply, which the travel clinic is tapping into. And because of the shortage of supply in the United States, people are flying in not only from the U.S. Pacific Northwest, but from California, Texas, New York."
American demand for the extra vaccines has been so high; the authority scheduled three special Saturday clinics. When the first one opened more than a hundred Americans showed up instead of the anticipated 75.
Dr. Paul Assad operates several immunization clinics near the Canadian-American border. By the end of October, he says his clinics were treating more than 400 Americans a day with the vaccine. He is now opening a special temporary facility where incoming busloads of American travelers will be treated.
"Well, we knew we would see more Americans than we normally would, but these numbers are quite surprising," said Dr. Assad. "And of course, it has made us scramble to get further stocks of vaccine."
Leaving the Health Authority's clinic in Vancouver on a bright and windy Saturday afternoon
are Teresa and Troy Sandland. The family drove two hours from Lyndon, Washington, so their daughter could receive an immunization. They say the vaccine calms their daughter's repeated seizures and the shortage has upset Mrs. Sandland.
"I think it's awful. There are so many people in the United States that are getting chronically sick, like she has - like seizures - and they can't get it in the United States," she complained. "They should make it more available to everybody. Politicians are getting it because they can make contact with people who are sick, and people who actually do need it aren't able to get it because politicians are pushing [them] aside and they shouldn't do that. And that makes me very upset."
The influx of Americans into Vancouver for flu shots is not expected to deplete the vaccine stockpile for local residents. Local health authorities are even expecting to have some left over, although not as much as in previous years.
Canada has its own manufacturing and distribution system for the flu vaccine. Similar to other developed countries, and unlike the United States, it is not experiencing any shortage of flu vaccine.
The United States lost about half its expected doses of flu vaccine in early October when one of its few pharmaceutical suppliers was found to have manufactured contaminated vaccines.
A major flu pandemic sweeps the globe about every 20 to 30 years, killings tens of millions of people. The World Health Organization says the risk has increased this year due to the current Bird Flu Virus in Asia.