ETHICS MADE REAL

Gordon Self

February 3, 2014

The new Health Ethics Guide devotes an entire chapter to the "social nature of care." This theme has particular meaning as we approach the 22nd annual World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11.

Pope Francis echoes this theme by quoting 1 John 3.16 in this year's World Day of the Sick pontifical message – "We ought to lay down our lives for one another." This message of solidarity reminds us that if one person is hurting, the whole community is hurting.

We cannot simply pass by the other side of the street if we see someone hurting, but like the Good Samaritan, we are called; indeed we are morally obliged to help them. Moreover, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our bodies, taking reasonable steps to improve both our well-being and that of the community.

One reasonable step to help ourselves and others is to get a flu shot. As I write, my colleagues in health care are still managing another influenza outbreak, one that has taken the lives or seriously harmed a number of people in our community.

Although the vaccine was available to both public and health care personnel in Alberta in the third week of October, as it is about the same time each year before influenza season hits, clinics had to be reinstituted due to low immunization rates. In fact, according to a recent national poll conducted by Forum Research fewer than 40 per cent of Canadians to date have been immunized.

A compelling body of evidence indicates that getting a flu shot early is the best way to protect oneself and others by building up immunity within the wider community. This is especially important to help protect those few who lack the antibodies necessary for the vaccine to be effective.

Taking responsibility for one's one health and that of others also helps better predict and manage vaccine distribution to avoid shortages, not to mention long lineups later.

But human nature being what it is, it seems there will always be some who will wait until the last minute to go Christmas shopping, file their taxes or get their flu shot. Not because they are not committed or don't care, but until influenza starts showing up and reality sets in people may not immediately follow through on their stated commitments.

While those who fall into this category often cite inconvenience of lineups or the time it takes to get the shot as barriers, according to the above poll reported in the Jan. 20 Globe and Mail, those surveyed indicated there are other reasons for the poor uptake.

MISTRUST OF THE VACCINE

The biggest reason given is mistrust of the vaccine itself around its purported safety and efficacy. The second was a sense of invulnerability, translated to mean, "I never get the flu, so why bother?" While there may be other reasons people do not or are unable to get immunized, these two primary concerns are nevertheless very troubling.

They trouble me because despite the Herculean effort of many people who are professionally and clinically competent to speak to the safety, efficacy and societal benefits of immunization, their message is obviously not getting through.

It also makes me wonder if the community really appreciates the alarming correlation between the numbers of hospitalizations due to influenza with those who had not previously been vaccinated. This suggests more effective public education is required to convey the information to help allay fears and change behaviours.

OUR MORAL TRADITION

But it also suggests to me that at least among Roman Catholics we need a better appreciation of our own moral tradition which upholds the role of both faith and reason in making moral judgments – as personal as whether to get a flu shot.

Certainly as a people of faith we need to pray for one another as we do during the World Day of the Sick. But as a people of reason, we also have to respect the science to help better educate ourselves about immunization and its benefits, not only personally, but in solidarity with others to improve the health of the entire community.

The social nature of care, as Pope Francis reinforces, obliges us to lay down our lives for one another. Few may ever have to shed their blood, thankfully. But we may have to roll up our sleeve. We may have to challenge our assumptions, opinions and fears that prevent us from getting a flu shot out of love for another vulnerable person.

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at mes@covenanthealth.ca.)