The National Institute on Ageing (NIA) is a Ryerson University think tank focused on the realities of Canada’s ageing population. Older Canadians represent the country’s fastest growing demographic and according to the NIA’s National Senior Strategy, approximately 1 in 6 Canadians were over the age of 65 in 2019. The NIA is Canada’s only think tank dedicated to policy solutions for an ageing population and they work at the intersections of healthcare, financial security, and social well-being.
Dr. Samir Sinha is the Director of Health Policy Research and Co-Chair of the NIA and currently serves as the Director of Geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network. He tells CJRU what flu seasons typically look like in Canada, what is happening in other regions, and insights into the next few months navigating influenza outbreaks and COVID-19 outbreaks simultaneously.
Dr. Sinha says that influenza is the seventh leading cause of death in Canada, primarily among older Canadians. It’s also the most vaccine preventable cause of death in the country. Canada recommends a vaccination target of 80% but Dr. Sinha explains that we fall short every year. The general Canadian population has a vaccination rate of 30-40% and among the older population, who are most vulnerable, there is a vaccination rate of 60%.
“We’re behind the U.S., the U.K., we’re behind many countries in achieving our influenza vaccination targets. The only country that really reaches their targets consistently is South Korea. And this is a problem because this is a preventative health measure that is often made available free of charge and conveniently through pharmacies, primary care providers, and public health units. Yet we still have trouble getting people vaccinated,” he explains.
This year, Canadians will be navigating the flu season alongside the ongoing pandemic. Dr. Sinha adds that the start of the pandemic was near the end of the flu season, so this “twindemic” will be a new experience. Older Canadians are more vulnerable to the flu and COVID-19, especially within congregate settings like long term care and shelters. He explains that these settings where people are living in close corners and receiving care from the same individual, make it easy for influenza and COVID-19 to spread.
At the same time, Dr. Sinha notes that the precautions in place for COVID-19 could lead to a tamer flu season. Countries like Australia have already gone through this situation because the Australian flu season happens during their winter season which aligns with Canadian summers.
“In Australia and Chile, countries in the Southern hemisphere, they didn’t see much of a flu season. We think the main reason is that everybody was more hypervigilant in washing their hands, physical distancing, and wearing their masks. Those are all good things that protect us from COVID-19, and they’re equally good things at protecting us from influenza as well,”
The hope is that our flu season resembles that of Australia and Chile. When looking ahead, Dr. Sinha is also excited to see a greater interest in the flu vaccine and wants to see the province meeting this demand.
“We’re quickly seeing that provinces didn’t anticipate that there would be this much interest in the flu vaccination, which boggles my mind. And therefore we’re facing flu vaccine shortages at a time when Canadians are finally willing to allow us to meet our public health targets,” he says.
To stay updated on the National Institute on Ageing, visit their website.
To hear Dr. Sinha’s thoughts on ageing, long term care, and the upcoming flu season listen to the interview below.