Toronto Paramedics Rebel
Over Forced Flu Shots
By Marianne Meed Ward
Toronto Sun

If we're going to force anyone to get a flu shot for the sake of public health it should be people who come into contact with kids: child care workers, burger flippers, toy store clerks, bus drivers, grandparents. Even other kids.
See, practically every time my 3-year-old daughter goes to church, to the neighbour's, to grandma and grandpa's, or to a McDonald's Playland she comes down with something. And passes it on to me. And her dad. And anyone else within sneezing distance. (The cats, miraculously, have been spared. Damn them.)
We should then force Type A co-workers who won't stay home when they're sick to get the needle. And methinks that would pretty much eliminate the flu.
But only one group of people is required by law to get vaccinated: paramedics. Which is odd. Because I've had the flu plenty of times, but I've never met a paramedic.
Understandably, Toronto's paramedics are fighting the legal requirement from the Ontario Health Ministry to get the shot (as of yesterday) or get suspended. They held a protest in Toronto last Thursday, then attended a rally in North Bay for paramedic Bill Kotsopoulos, who was suspended Dec. 22 for refusing to be vaccinated.
The union representing almost 900 paramedics said 90% hadn't yet had their shots. Let's hope the ministry, in its flu fervour, doesn't suspend them all. Or any of them.
Because most of us aren't going to get the flu from a paramedic. We'll get it from a friend, family member or co-worker. If public health is the overriding issue, we should all be forced to be vaccinated. But I doubt we want to go there.
There's the argument that paramedics deal with sick people whose immune systems are down and might be more susceptible to infection. So why aren't all doctors, nurses and health care workers required by law, and not just their office policies and procedures, to get the shot?
But there's a simple (some might say common sense) solution that sidesteps the shot: tell health care workers to stay home when they're sick, whether they've got a cold (for which there is no vaccination) or something else.
Trouble is, the federal health ministry's National Advisory Committee on Immunization doesn't seem to think people can be trusted to stay home. The advisory committee recommends all health care workers be forced to be immunized (provincial and regional bodies ultimately make that decision).
From the committee's statement on the flu shot for the 2000-2001 season: "In the absence of contraindications, refusal of health care workers to be immunized implies failure in their duty of care to their patients. Studies have demonstrated that HCWs who are ill with influenza frequently continue to work."
Yikes. Kind of harsh, don't you think?
The study in question found that 59% of British health care workers who had the flu virus didn't know it and continued to work, "potentially transmitting infection to their patients."
Well, did they or didn't they? If the flu they'd contracted was at such a low level they didn't know they had it (unlike any flu I've ever had), maybe they didn't transmit it.
The statement goes on to say absenteeism as a result of the flu "results in excess economic costs and in some cases, potential endangerment of health care delivery due to scarcity of replacement workers."
Aha! We've finally found the cause of the health care crisis: unvaccinated paramedics! Somebody call Allan Rock!
I guess I have more faith in our paramedics to do right by their patients.
Bottom line: people shouldn't be forced to put something into their bodies that they don't want, that may not work (70%-90% effective), that has side effects (soreness, fever, muscle pain) and risks, however small (Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nerve disorder causing paralysis of limbs and breathing muscles).
Most health care workers could probably get the shot without incident. But would you want to be the one in a gazillion for whom prevention - which you were ordered to get - was worse than the disease?
Suspend workers who come to work sick. But don't suspend them for refusing a shot when they're healthy.
Marianne Meed Ward, a freelance writer with an interest in social and ethical issues, appears Mondays. Her e-mail

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