Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson has called on the NWT government to expand coverage for the shingles vaccine, but the health minister says that’s not cost-effective.
Since January 2021, the territory has funded the vaccine – named Shingrix – for seniors aged 65 to 70, people receiving active cancer treatment and, in some cases, immunocompromised people.
Canadian guidance recommends the shingles vaccine for a broader group: adults aged 50 and older, people living in long-term care facilities, and adults with compromised immune systems.
Shingles is a reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox and results in a painful rash. For some people it can lead to long-term complications like nerve pain, hearing problems, brain inflammation or even death.
In the Legislative Assembly on Monday, Johnson questioned whether the territory was willing to extend its coverage of the shingles vaccine to people aged 50 and older.
Health and social services minister Julie Green responded that covering the vaccine for every resident in that age group is costly, so the territory has chosen to prioritize high-risk populations.
“The rationale here is that the number of people in the NWT who require the shingles vaccine is relatively small compared to other vaccines that we would like to fund – and don’t have the money to fund at this point,” Green said.
According to the minister, the territory would have to pay $1.91 million to immunize residents aged 50 and older, plus an annual cost of $165,000 for booster doses. Between 2009 and 2018, she said, the cost of shingles-related hospitalizations for NWT residents in that age range was $1.3 million.
Green encouraged people aged 50 to 64 to get the vaccine if they are covered under employer plans.
Nearly one in three Canadians gets shingles in their lifetime, with incidence and severity increasing sharply after the age of 50. Treatments for shingles have been shown to have limited effectiveness.
Confusion over coverage
While the NWT has funded Shingrix for some people for more than a year, several seniors told Cabin Radio even public health staff were, until recently, unaware that coverage existed.
One senior described trying to access the vaccine last month, only to be told it was not covered.
Mary Tapsell, vice president of the Yellowknife Seniors’ Society, said public health staff in the city said they had not been informed of the coverage.
Tapsell said the vaccine is costly at around $160 per dose. Two doses are required at a recommended interval of two to six months.
The Department of Health and Social Services said the initial announcement of shingles vaccine coverage coincided with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. As seniors were told to wait six months after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, the department said, the “precaution may have contributed to the shingles vaccine’s lack of widespread comms coverage.”
NWT residents eligible for Shingrix who are First Nations, Inuit and Métis can access funding under the non-insured health benefits program. Others can have their costs reimbursed by submitting a claim to Alberta Blue Cross.
People can access the vaccine through their public health office or health centre.