TORONTO - A decision about which groups of Canadians should be front of the line to receive the swine flu vaccine once it becomes available won't be made until early to mid-September, federal health officials said Wednesday.
Unlike the United States, which is drawing up a priority list because vaccine supplies are expected to fall short of demand, Canada is on track to have enough of the agent to inoculate all Canadians who need and want it, said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
"We don't need to make that decision today, as the production will be starting sometime in October," Aglukkaq said of the decision as to who will be first to roll up their sleeves for a shot in the arm.
"We have a window of opportunity here to continue to learn more about H1N1 so that by the time we develop the priority listing that it is based on the best information that we have, based on the cases that we're seeing across Canada, as well as the global community," she told an Ottawa news conference.
Also on Wednesday, a U.S. government panel recommended that pregnant women, health-care workers and children six months and older be among those heading the priority list for swine flu vaccine. As well, those first vaccinated should include parents and other caregivers of infants; non-elderly adults who have high-risk medical conditions; and young adults ages 19 to 24.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to set vaccination priorities for those groups during a meeting in Atlanta. The panel's recommendations are usually adopted by U.S. federal health officials.
Ottawa has had a contract with GlaxoSmithKline since 2001 to provide enough pandemic vaccine for the entire population, if need be.
Aglukkaq said GSK should be ready to begin clinical trials of its H1N1 flu vaccine by October, if not earlier. "Assuming all goes well and initial clinical trials indicate the product is safe and effective, immunization programs will most likely begin in November."
Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said experts want to collect as much information as possible, including data from clinical trials of vaccines in other countries, before making the decision about who should be first in line for vaccination.
He said a priority list would decide which groups - health-care providers or pregnant women, for instance - should get their shots once provinces and territories roll out their vaccination programs.
"In Canada, the issue of vaccine is not one of who will get vaccine or not, it's who will get it in the first week versus, say, the fourth week of the immunization program," he said. "So it's not a prioritization in the sense of most countries are prioritizing because they don't have enough vaccine for everybody, so they are choosing groups to be immunized first."
While most swine flu cases in Canada continue to be mild, Butler-Jones agreed some Canadians are at higher risk than others for developing severe disease from the H1N1 flu strain and they will be high on the list for immunization.
Among those at highest risk are pregnant women.
In a study published Wednesday in The Lancet, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that pregnant women who get swine flu are at least four times more likely to be hospitalized than other people with the virus.
Their analysis of the first 34 cases of H1N1 flu in pregnant women in the U.S. between April and mid-June showed six died after contracting the infection. Pregnant women have accounted for an estimated six per cent of U.S. swine flu deaths since the pandemic began in April, even though they make up just one per cent of the population.
Among 60 Canadian women aged 15 to 50 who were admitted to ICUs with severe disease from swine flu, nine (or 15 per cent) were pregnant, and two have died.
So when it comes to a priority list for Canada, said Butler-Jones, "pretty clearly pregnant women, because of the risk, are one of the groups we would hope to immunize early on."
-With files from The Associated Press