Pregnant Women… Elderly… Hockey Players… You.

Recently the Canadian news world was rocked by the revelation that the Calgary’s NHL hockey team, the Flames, had jumped the queue and gotten the H1N1 Vaccine well before they should have. “Typical celebrities” Was the cry of frustrated line waiters who were trying to get their vaccine via the social contract.

As everyone knows, there are limited H1N1 vaccines in Canada at the moment and so far Health Canada has decided to ration the supply out to those most vulnerable. They have listed the order as:

People under 65 with chronic health conditions.
Pregnant women Children 6 months to less than 5 years of age.
People living in remote and isolated settings or communities.
Health care workers involved in pandemic response or the delivery of essential health care services.
Household contacts and care providers of persons at high risk who cannot be immunized or may not respond to vaccines.
Populations otherwise identified as high risk.
-source: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/alert-alerte/h1n1/faq_rg_h1n1-eng.php

So when the Calgary Flames jumped ahead of all those people in Alberta waiting in line many were justifiably upset. Once the story broke, the Alberta Government launched an investigation to find out how the Flames managed to jump the gun. It seems that the uproar isn’t likely to fade quickly. Alberta politicians are blaming each other and more outrage was generated when it was learned that not only did the Calgary Flames get the vaccine, the Flames’ farm team, the Abbotsford Heat did as well.

It didn’t take long for the consequences to fall; a health employee (name and official position not revealed) has been fired by Alberta Health. And on Friday November 6th, a second health employee has been fired.

This has been an unmitigated media disaster for the Calgary Flames, to add insult to injury, the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks made a point of saying how they would not be “jumping the gun” to get the vaccine ahead of the vulnerable. Meanwhile there are plenty of Flames faithful trying to defend their teams actions and perhaps they have a point. Can one really blame the players? The vaccine was offered to them and their families. Who would turn that down?

And to be fair, we should mention that some players on Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors have also received the vaccine, earning a public scorning from Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews.

Now with all this talk of jumping the queue and preferential treatment going on, some people are scratching their heads and saying, “well maybe hockey players are especially vulnerable to H1N1…” And that might be true. Of course, that’s not to say the Flames did the right thing. Going through back channels and political maneuvering to get the vaccine ahead of others was and is wrong.

Let’s consider an average hockey player, he or she might travel to five different cities in a week. During that travel through airports, bus stations, restaurants, hotels, they will come into contact with hundreds of people. Then they go play hockey and come into contact with thirty other players who have also been traveling around in airports, bus stations, restaurants, and hotels and just got back from a game with thirty other players who…you get the picture.

Now, not to say the current vaccination program is flawed, giving pregnant women and children and the elderly high priority, we do know after all for a fact that H1N1 affects pregnant women considerably worse than others. However, what about the elderly with compromised immune systems? With a compromised immune system it might be difficult for the vaccine to have as successful effect compared to someone whose immune system is working a full capacity. I’m hardly an expert on the immune system so I’ll trust our experts on this one.

But when you compare say a senior citizen and (for argument’s sake) a hockey player, the senior might have a compromised immune system, so could be more vulnerable, but the hockey player moves around far more than a senior (I mean in the sense that a hockey player moves around the country far more) Is it possible that the hockey player is the bigger threat as a carrier of the virus, potentially able to infect far more people?

What about teachers or fire fighters? They may not have as much contact with the ill as health care workers do, but they must be a close second.

Ultimately what I’m talking about here is Herd Immunity. If enough people are vaccinated it prevents the virus from moving from host to host, which can keep the virus from spreading, thus protecting those who can’t be vaccinated. We know herd immunity needs about a 90% vaccination rate to work. Without herd immunity all our vaccination efforts could be wasted. If the virus spread enough it could even mutate and then the vaccine would be useless. Or the virus could simply spread too fast and infect people at an uncontrollable rate. Of course that’s all just guess work. So far we’ve managed to contain H1N1 remarkably well.

In fact, these long line ups for the vaccine might not be necessary. Simple steps like washing your hands regularly; cough and sneeze into your arm, don’t touch your face with your hands, stay home if you are sick… all those methods appear to be working. Perhaps there is no reason to fear hockey players and excessive travel if they follow those steps.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.