01/10/2014 02:35 EST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Flu vaccine supply boosted by half million doses

Canada has secured nearly a quarter of a million doses of seasonal, H1N1 flu vaccine for provinces that are struggling to find supplies.

H1N1 is the predominant viral strain circulating in Canada. It's part of the normal flu season, said Dr. Gregory Taylor, deputy public health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada. But higher-than-usual anxiety about the flu this season is driving up demand.  

"I think when people hear [H1N1] that makes people upset and excited and probably fearful because they equate that with the H1N1 pandemic," Taylor said in an interview Friday.

Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories announced they will ration seasonal flu vaccine to those at high risk.

"We've been able to secure an additional 245,800 doses of vaccine," said Taylor. "So all that will be allocated out in the next week or so."

The agency does not distribute vaccine or decide how much provinces and territories purchase. The doses are purchased by Ottawa and the provinces and territories then place orders. 

Saskatchewan's priority groups are children under five years old, pregnant women and women who are in the four-week postpartum period after delivering.

"Unfortunately, because the global supply of vaccine is limited, we now have to change our approach," said Denise Werker, Saskatchewan's deputy chief medical health officer.

-  Saskatchewan starts restricting who gets flu shots 

Similarly, in the Northwest Territories, the health department said it is now only offering the flu vaccine to high-risk individuals, with priority given to expectant mothers and children under the age of five.

If provinces and territories underestimate the amount of vaccine needed, PHAC said it will will support them by:  

-        Seeking additional supply from manufacturers. 

-        Co-ordinating exchanges between provinces.  

-        Co-ordinating bulk contracting with Public Works and Government Services Canada to reduce costs.  

Alberta's government is still considering buying the flu vaccine from pharmacies that are selling their own supply, but says the amount available is limited.  

A national committee that reports to the federal government called the Vaccine Supply Working Group makes recommendations about how reserve stocks of flu vaccine should be distributed, said Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne.

As of Friday, Public Works and Government Services Canada said it's procured nearly 10,796,000 doses of seasonal influenza vaccine. The doses have been provided under contracts with GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Pasteur, Novartis and AstraZenaca, a spokesman said.

A spokesperson for Shoppers Drug Mart said flu vaccine supplies are in good shape in Ontario, but are running into trouble in Nova Scotia. Availability is also low in New Brunswick and British Columbia. While most of the company's supplies come from public health agencies, some is also privately procured.  
Vaccine maker Novartis Pharmaceutical Canada said it's fulfilled its contractual obligations for flu vaccine.  

"To date, Novartis has supplied an additional 100,000 doses to the provinces and is currently working with its global supply network to source more additional doses for the Canadian population," Andrea Gilpin, director of corporate communications at Novartis Canada said.

Gipin added that flu vaccine manufacturing for the Northern Hemisphere is now closed.

Friday's FluWatch report showed widespread flu activity in parts of Alberta during last week.

In the U.S., most states are approaching peak levels for moderately severe flu seasons. 

"We are hearing of spot shortages. Given the time in our flu season, it isn't surprising. People who haven't been vaccinated and want to get the vaccine may have to look in several places for it," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said on Thursday. 

It is not unusual to run out mid-season during a moderate to severe season, which is what this year is shaping up to be, Skinner said.