Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vaccines off to reserves, but some wary

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WINNIPEG -- Cases of H1N1 flu vaccine are being rushed to Manitoba's hardest-hit reserves, but a grand chief says some aboriginals won't participate in Canada's largest immunization campaign.

David Harper, who represents Manitoba's northern First Nations, said some feel the H1N1 vaccine has been pushed through too quickly, while others prefer to rely on traditional medicine.

"There are some that are reluctant," he said Thursday. "They need more information... . There are some that are steadily going toward traditional medicine. There are certain medicines that can help you, that will not stop it, but... will strengthen your immune system."

A spokesman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government wants all Canadians to follow the advice of public health officials and get vaccinated.

"The vaccine is safe, effective and the best way to prevent illness in communities," said Tim Vail, director of communications for Agglukaq.

Reluctance to get the vaccine concerns health officials who say Manitoba's aboriginals are among the most vulnerable to the virus and are most at risk of developing serious complications if infected.

Hundreds of volunteer health-care workers are now being mobilized and massive flu clinics are being scheduled to immunize around 64,000 aboriginals in northern Manitoba starting next week. Those living in remote, fly-in communities are considered to be a top priority because of their experience last spring.

A disproportionate number had to be put on ventilators in intensive care when the flu first hit. Many patients were airlifted from a cluster of northern First Nations reserves where there are fewer than 10,000 residents.

While some who were touched by the illness will probably get a shot, others aren't convinced about the benefits of the swine flu vaccine, Harper said.

Northern chiefs aren't pushing people to get immunized but are trying to promote good hygiene such as handwashing and cleanliness, Harper said. But that can be difficult when dozens of people share a house with little running water.

Health officials are strongly urging virtually everyone in Canada to get vaccinated. Aboriginals make up one of the priority groups.

Paul Gully, senior medical adviser with Health Canada, said vaccinating in remote communities is vital given the apparent vulnerability of aboriginals and the difficulty fly-in reserves have getting medical care in the winter.

"We want to reduce the risk of severe illness occurring," he said.

Health Canada has been trying to target aboriginals with its education campaign and assure them that the vaccine is safe and effective, Gully added.

"Think of the benefits from all other vaccines which have been used for decades in all communities, including the North, and have reduced the burden of illness that we have in this country."

Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he's planning on getting immunized and hopes others will also.

"The safer bet is to take it," Evans said. "That's what we're going to encourage our communities to do. The consequences of not taking it could be devastating."

But he conceded that the decision is up to individuals.

"There are those who will follow the traditional way. There is no question about that. That option is there."

Gully and Manitoba's chief public health officer say people don't have to choose between the vaccine and traditional medicine. Joel Kettner said the two don't conflict.

The risk of getting H1N1 outweighs any minuscule risks associated with the vaccine, he said.

"I don't think there is any group more important to get the vaccine than First Nations people in Manitoba."


-- The Canadian Press, with files from Mia Rabson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2009 A4

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