10/27/2012 05:04 EDT | Updated 12/27/2012 05:12 EST

Novartis Flu Vaccine Suspended In BC

Flickr: USACE Europe District

VICTORIA - British Columbia's supply of flu vaccine has been reduced by 30 per cent just as the seasonal campaign to get a shot kicks off, but the province's top health officer doesn't expect flu clinics to be affected.

Dr. Perry Kendall is concerned, however, that the public may shy from getting vaccinated now the province is heeding a Health Canada recommendation to suspend the use of one particular vaccine made by Novartis.

"I would really hope that it wouldn't (impact uptake), but I am a bit anxious about that, yes," Kendall told reporters during a conference call on Saturday.

"Because although the vaccine — as you would have heard — is less effective potentially than we would have hoped ... It still provides substantial, on average, 60 per cent reduction in the risk of getting influenza."

Kendall was referring to a report from Minnesota-based health researchers released earlier this month suggesting current vaccines offer moderate protection some years and less in others.

On Friday, Health Canada contacted health-care facilities across the country advising them to stop using the flu vaccine made by the Italian pharmaceutical firm.

Following that move, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control issued notice to all provincial health authorities advising them to halt using the Novartis products, sold as Agriflu and Fluad in Canada.

The "precautionary" measure was taken based on the discovery of tiny clumps of virus in some batches of the vaccines at the European plant where it is produced.

A vaccine is made of dead, harmless virus bits associated with the disease it is working to immunize against.

"People who have already been vaccinated do not have to worry," Kendall said. "The vaccines that have been used in B.C. have passed Health Canada's inspection systems with no concerns."

Kendall said protein clumping in the past has been associated with some allergic-type reactions, but stressed that no adverse affects have been reported in Canada to date.

The Novartis products comprise about 30 per cent of B.C.'s provincial flu vaccine supply. Kendall said flu shot campaigns were launched less than two weeks ago, and will go into higher gear next week.

"I'm pretty confident that we will have sufficient vaccine available for everybody who wants it. We're certainly not likely to run out in the near future."

The ministry says provincial public health officials are working with other experts across Canada this weekend to figure out what steps should be taken next for public vaccination programs.

Health Canada is expected to have results of risks assessments being conducted by Italian and Swiss health authorities in the next week, Kendall said.

Should the product be cleared for use, the province will add the extracted vaccine back into the supply.

Flu clinics in Saskatchewan have currently been suspended over the Novartis concerns, while officials in Alberta and Manitoba are carrying forward with vaccines that are not made by the company.

Only about one per cent of Manitoba's supply is Agriflu, while the Alberta government says the same product comprises about 22 per cent of its total vaccine supply.

— By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver