Sudbury geriatrician and researcher Dr. Janet McElhaney said she's supportive of a new Health Sciences North policy requiring hospital workers to wear surgical masks if they haven't received a flu shot.
That's because it protects her elderly patients, who she said are at risk of developing devastating health conditions if they catch the flu.
It's difficult to convince hospital workers “that refuse to get vaccinated that they're actually weapons walking through the hospitals,” McElhaney said.
“I've been watching older people come into hospital with a different problem and developing influenza in the hospital,” she said.
In younger people, flu isn't often a serious illness, so they can be reluctant to receive the shot, McElhaney said. This becomes an issue when they pass the illness on to the elderly.
For those worried about the safety of flu shots, McElhaney said she's been immunized herself 24 years in a row without any ill effects.
The Health Sciences North Volunteer Association Research Chair in Geriatrics made the remarks Jan. 31 at the Advanced Medical Research Institute of Canada's (AMRIC) second annual Winter Research Dinner.
AMRIC, which was launched late last year, is Health Sciences North's research institute.
To demonstrate the devastating impact the flu can have on elderly people, McElhaney shares the story of one of her own patients.
A 75-year-old woman had been hospitalized after the sudden onset of muscle aches, and a day later, she was intubated in the intensive care unit.
After a 10-day hospitalization, including three days in the intensive care unit, she was discharged to a rehabilitation facility.
Her diagnosis: an exacerbation of chronic lung disease. McElhaney said this is often just a “hand-off diagnosis” given when doctors don't really know what's wrong with someone.
When McElhaney did a throat swab, she discovered the woman still had traces of the flu bug in her system. When she asked the patient if she'd received her flu vaccine that year, the woman said she'd forgotten to get the shot.
Before her hospitalization, the woman had lived independently in her own home, and even liked to golf, but now she was having difficulty walking.
“The question she asked me was 'Will I ever make it out of here?'” McElhaney said. “I had to say 'I don't know.'”
McElhaney said many people don't realize that the flu can cause heart attacks, strokes, falls and injuries due to weakness, worsening of diabetes symptoms and pneumonia, especially in the elderly, who are hit harder by the illness.
At the same time, those with chronic disease have the highest risk of hospitalization, McElhaney said. When elderly people are admitted to the hospital, they often leave the facility with permanent complications.
“One in three in every older person admitted to an acute care hospital will end up with a higher level of disability than before they got sick,” she said. “Half never recover.”
McElhaney specializes in research focused on making common vaccines against infectious diseases more effective in elderly people, including the flu vaccine.
Flu vaccines are currently much more effective in younger people as opposed to their elderly counterparts, she said.
Beyond the flu vaccine, McElhaney is involved in research to improve the effectiveness of the shingles and pneumonia vaccines, and is also helping to develop a vaccine for C. Difficile.
If elderly people had better protection against these infections, they might be able to avoid hospitalization, and becoming more frail as a result, McElhaney said.
The geriatrician was just one of several researchers and health-care professionals who presented at the AMRIC fundraising dinner, which was held at Verdicchio Ristorante.
Nadia Mykytczuk, a research scientist and post-doctoral student working at the Vale Living With Lakes Centre, gave a presentation on using microbiology to study mining environments, freshwater ecosystems and wetlands.
Teresa Marsh spoke about her research on helping aboriginal communities heal from trauma and addiction. Dr. Jacques Abourbih spoke about how to conduct ethical research.
The Winter Research Dinner, as well as raising funds for AMRIC, introduces the public to some of the city's researchers, said Dr. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma, Health Sciences North's vice-president of research.
“I think people in the community should feel very proud that we have been able to grow so fast and we have people with talent coming into this community and staying here to find new solutions to our health-care system,” he said.
Diaz-Mitoma said he thought the dinner was a success.
“It was a full room,” he said. “We had many people supporting the research institute. I think it's a great gathering of talent.”