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Alberta to bring in more children's pain medication as illnesses strain hospitals

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith addresses the children’s medication shortage in Edmonton, on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. The province has secured five million bottles of children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen for Alberta families. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

CALGARY — The Alberta government says it has secured another five million bottles of children's medication for parents to manage fever and pain at home as hospitals continue to feel the strain of several respiratory illnesses.

Premier Danielle Smith said the government is working with Alberta Health Services and Health Canada to bring in the pediatric acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

"Just about every parent with young ones at home is frustrated and worried about the shortage of children's over-the-counter medications right now," Smith said Tuesday at a news conference in Edmonton. "Unfortunately, this shortage is an issue across the country.

"It's distressing to our families and to our health-care professionals when symptoms can't be treated at home."

Parents across Canada have been scrambling to manage their children's fever and pain as rates of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and influenza skyrocket amid a dire shortage of the medications.

The federal government also imported one million units of children's acetaminophen, commonly known as Tylenol, across the country late last month. Health Canada has distributed the children's Tylenol to retailers and has also sent children's ibuprofen, commonly known as Advil, to hospitals.

Health officials have said Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary and the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton have been operating at or above 100 per cent of their normal capacity for most of November and into December.

Alberta Health Services, which delivers health care in the province, set up a heated trailer outside the emergency department at the Calgary pediatric hospital last month to help with crowding and frigid weather conditions.

It has also redeployed about 65 full- and part-time staff to the hospital from a facility that provides respite care for chronically and terminally ill children, as well as five of its outpatient clinics.

Smith said during the news conference that the health-care system is under strain.

When asked by a reporter what steps her government was taking to prevent children's respiratory illnesses, Smith suggested the question was off topic.

"Here's the fact of the matter: We know we've been hit with RSV, COVID and influenza all at once," she said. "Sadly, there isn't a vaccine for RSV and it is the most common childhood illness.

"What people need to know is that when their child gets sick that they have the medication available for them so they can treat the influenza at home."

A health official at Alberta Children's Hospital said this week that the patients are primarily children with RSV and influenza, as well as some COVID-19 cases.

"Influenza and RSV are the major concerns," Margaret Fullerton, senior operating officer, said late Monday afternoon.

There are, she said, measures people can take to prevent the spread of all three illnesses.

"If you are sick, stay at home. Wearing a mask is certainly something that will help when you are out in a big group of people," Fullerton said. "With winter upon us and parties going on, there is that viral activity that can happen in this respiratory season."

She said getting vaccinated also helps to prevent illness.

"We have really low vaccination for influenza, especially for children right now in Alberta," she said. "The more flu vaccines we can get into children and families can really help."

Alberta Health data shows 15.3 per cent of children between six months and four years old have had their flu shots. The target is 80 per cent for the age group.

A total of 135 children under four have been hospitalized for flu and one of those children has died. A second child between the age of five and nine has also died. The flu vaccination rate for five- to nine-year-olds is 13.6 per cent, while 10- to 14-year-olds have 12.3 per cent coverage.

Overall, 22.5 per cent of Albertans have received their flu shots.

The respiratory illnesses are also creating challenges at the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, Alta.

"Our hospital capacity is very stretched," Dr. Aaron Low, medical director for the south zone of Alberta Health Services, said Tuesday. "We have not had to transfer any patients out who would have required critical care … but that is something we are actively working on."

He said there were a few hours on the weekend when they would have had to divert patients to other hospitals, due to staffing shortages, had anyone arrived with intensive care needs.

Low said children who need intensive care are often sent to Calgary, but he noted the hospital is seeing more older patients with severe diseases.

"We encourage people to be vaccinated for influenza," he said. "It appears … the circulating strains are more severe strains and that's partly why we are seeing such a severe viral season in Alberta."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press