OTTAWA – Critics are blasting the Harper government for its handling of the swine-flu outbreak as long lineups continue for flu shots and some provinces warn of dwindling supplies of H1N1 vaccine.
A number of provinces, including Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, face vaccine shortages after a production problem at the manufacturer’s plant last week slowed delivery of the drug.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff called the government incompetent during an emergency swine-flu debate in the House of Commons on Monday night.
He said the government had released confusing information about the H1N1 vaccine which is “a source of enormous anxiety among Canadian families.”
“Instead of taking responsibility the government blames everybody else, they blame the drug company because they don’t have a supply next week, they blame the provinces and territories, we don’t deliver health care, they say.”
Ignatieff said “epidemics don’t care about jurisdictions.”
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq responded that thousands of Canadians are getting their inoculations and said there will be vaccines for everyone who wants one.
She rejected the Liberal leader’s claim that they are blaming other parties, saying they are using an infuenza plan that was “built on years of collaboration with provinces and territories and the medical community.”
The government came under fire after people wanting to get vaccinated faced long lineups, confusion and in some cases were turned away from clinics.
Lower-than-expected production of the vaccine this week by Quebec-based manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline has meant some clinics have run out of supply. The drugmaker expects to ship roughly 436,00 doses of vaccine with an adjuvant – or booster compound – as well as about 225,000 doses of vaccine without the adjuvant, which are meant for pregnant women.
Opposition MPs peppered the Conservatives with questions in the Commons earlier Monday, asking why the vaccine rollout has been such a “failure” given that the government assured the public months ago it would be prepared.
Liberal MP Bob Rae said the government has two main responsibilities: “The first is to ensure a steady and reliable supply of vaccines for H1N1. The second is to provide leadership and information on a coherent pandemic response.”
“I would like to ask the government a very simple question: How could it have failed so miserably to execute these two critical responsibilities?” Rae asked.
Aglukkaq at first left it to Transport Minister John Baird to answer questions, before finally weighing in. She said every Canadian who wants the vaccine will get it by Christmas, adding that Canada has more doses of vaccine per capita than any other country.
“For the last eight months, we’ve been very transparent in the rollout of this vaccine, communicating with provinces and territories … including the critics,” Aglukkaq said.
“Six million doses were produced ahead of schedule. As soon as they were available and authorized, they were transferred to the provinces and territories for their rollout. We will see thousands more this week and a million more next week.”
There was also anger over private clinics getting the H1N1 vaccine while many Canadians wait for their shots. Private medical clinics in Vancouver and Toronto that charge patients thousands of dollars for treatment have received doses of the swine-flu vaccine.
“You shouldn’t be able to buy your way to the front of the line for flu vaccination,” NDP Leader Jack Layton said. “That is just not right in Canada.”
Fellow New Democrat MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis took Aglukkaq to task in the Commons.
“Why should pregnant women have to stand in line for hours, while the rich get access to a private clinic in Toronto?” she asked.
Aglukkaq answered that the provinces are responsible for the delivery of health care, not Ottawa.
Public-health officials are appealing to lower-risk Canadians to wait a little longer for the vaccine, at least until those who are most vulnerable get their shots.
The vaccine shortage, coupled with the flood of people seeking shots, has forced Alberta to temporarily suspend all swine-flu vaccination clinics. The province is facing a shortage after deciding last week to vaccinate everyone who wanted a flu shot, regardless of whether they were at high or lower risk.
In Manitoba, public vaccination programs are being temporarily suspended in Winnipeg and other parts of the province because vaccine supplies are running short.
Other provinces asked that only those deemed to be at high risk get the shot last week.
Nova Scotia’s health minister, Maureen MacDonald, said there simply isn’t enough vaccine to get to people who may legitimately need it at this point. She said health officials are having to evaluate on a daily basis whether there is enough vaccine to meet the demand in targeted groups.
Health officials in Saskatchewan say they have enough swine flu vaccine for pregnant women and children under the age of five, but other high risk groups will have to wait for now.
Ontario’s premier sounded a more optimistic note Monday, saying he’s confident this week’s rollout of the H1N1 vaccine will be better than last week’s.
Dalton McGuinty acknowledged that the rollout in cities such as Toronto – where pregnant women and toddlers lined up in the rain for hours last week – wasn’t handled as well as it could have been.
But he said the province has now doubled the number of flu clinics, to 100 from 50 last week, to meet swelling demand.
Health officials admit they were caught off-guard by the swelling crowds at vaccination clinics. Polls leading up to the vaccine rollout suggested few Canadians planned to get the swine-flu shot.
But that was before the recent deaths of three Ontario children who caught H1N1 – with another death still unconfirmed – put a human face on the virus and galvanized worried Canadians to get themselves and their families vaccinated.