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Canadian seniors are eligible for four key vaccines this fall, but not all are free


In most of Canada, you can feel a chill in the air. The change in season, triggering a change in health risks, has signalled the start of the cold and flu season. After three brutal winters, with respiratory illnesses dominating the headlines and filling hospitals, doctors are hopeful this one will be calmer.

“I think we’re all a little apprehensive after having seen what happened last year when we had influenza, COVID and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) all peaking at the same time. Having said that, this year I don’t think we’re expecting necessarily the same thing,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

While it is expected to be an early flu season, indicators from the southern hemisphere show it may not be as severe. But as cases of COVID-19 and RSV start to rise, medical experts are urging people to update their vaccines, especially those over 60 and with underlying health conditions. Seniors are most at risk of severe consequences and health setbacks and doctors say vaccines are a critical tool in avoiding illness this year.

“It’s not just the respiratory component of these infections that actually harms people. These viruses also precipitate other problems, including heart disease, like heart attacks, heart failure,” said Dr. Evans.

There are now four main vaccines available to seniors in Canada this fall, each targeting a troubling virus or bacteria that in the past has led to increased hospitalizations and death among the vulnerable population.

The immunizations that doctors want people to consider are ones that cover COVID-19, influenza, bacterial pneumonia and RSV, approved by Health Canada this summer.

COVID and flu shots are free and available at most doctors offices, pharmacies and public health units, depending on where you live.

Vaccines for pneumonia may come at a cost, depending on the product and province. There are two types of vaccines to protect against pneumococcal disease. Most provinces cover one form of immunization for certain demographics, ages and health conditions, while another form of the vaccine can be purchased. B.C., for example, covers certain pneumococcal vaccines for specific age groups and living conditions, while others can be purchased, according to its immunization website. Meanwhile, the Alberta Health Services website shows vaccines that are available for purchase and protect against numerous strains. 

The vaccine for RSV, recently approved by Health Canada in August, comes at a cost. Most seniors across the country will have to pay for the shot. While the federal government approved the new vaccine in August, it is up to the provinces to determine whether it will cover the costs of the shot and how it will be administered.This photo provided by GSK in August 2023 shows their RSV vaccine Arexvy. (Courtesy of GSK)

“The challenge right now, of course, is these vaccines are new. We’re waiting for recommendations from all the provinces to get funding,” said Dr. Evans. “Right now, to get the RSV vaccine, because it’s not publicly funded, that does require someone to purchase it to get it and that’s probably going to impact on our ability early this fall for people to get it.”

The province of Ontario has agreed to cover the RSV vaccine, but only for people 60 and older who are living in long-term care facilities or in some retirement homes.

The new RSV vaccine show high efficacy of more than 82 per cent for prevention of lower respiratory tract diseases in older adults and more than 94 per cent in those with underlying medical conditions.

With so many vaccines available to Canadians, it’s understandable that most people find immunizations confusing. Medical experts are urging people to speak with their doctor or pharmacists and get clarification.

“They will help you navigate the labyrinth that is all these viruses, are you at risk, and are you not at risk, what should you get. It all starts with a dialogue. Now that we're getting in the respiratory illness season, it’s a good time to have that chat,” said Kyro Maseh, a pharmacist at Rylander Pharmacy in Toronto.

Maseh says the uptake of vaccines and general awareness has been good so far this season.

“We've seen what happens when respiratory illnesses get out of hand and the effect they have on hospital capacity overall. We saw that last winter,” said Maseh, adding that has many people turning to vaccines to help protect themselves and their community. Top Stories

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