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Canadians should ensure kids get routine vaccines following COVID disruptions: doctors

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Preventable diseases like measles could follow trends seen elsewhere in the world and spread quickly in Canada due to a drop in routine vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, say pediatricians who are urging parents to ensure their kids are fully immunized.

Provinces and territories log data on vaccinations provided in the community against infectious diseases like measles, diphtheria, polio and whooping cough, as well as vaccines against other illnesses administered in school immunization clinics.

Although much current data doesn’t cover years beyond 2019, provinces with more recent figures are already seeing a dramatic decline in routine vaccinations.

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Pediatricians are concerned about possible outbreaks of preventable diseases if too many children were underimmunized or not vaccinated at all while public health clinics focused on COVID-19 vaccines. Widespread school closures and vaccine disinformation that swayed some parents against immunization efforts complicated matters still further.

Recent data from Public Health Ontarioshows that for 12-year-olds, vaccination against the liver infection hepatitis B plummeted to about 17 per cent in the 2020 to 2021 school year, compared with 67 per cent in the school year ending in 2019.

For human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cancer, the vaccination numbers were even lower, plunging to 0.8 per cent last year, compared with 58 per cent in 2019. For the meningococcal vaccine, which helps protect against four types of the bacteria that cause a rare disease, vaccinations fell to about 17 per cent from 80 per cent over the same time. Risks of the potentially deadly illness include meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.

“The large decline in coverage in 2019-20 and 2020-21 illustrates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as there was limited capacity to deliver school-based immunization programs,” Public Health Ontario said in a statement.

It said data for uptake of vaccines aimed at protecting younger kids against measles, for example, is not available beyond 2019, and a report on later numbers is expected to be released next spring.

Dr. Monika Naus,medical director of Immunization Programs and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Service at the BC Centre for Disease Control, said in-school vaccines, starting in Grade 6, were delayed, but work is underway to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Younger children missed appointments at doctors’ offices while physicians were seeing patients virtually and public health clinics, which mostly administer routine vaccines for kids outside of the Lower Mainland region of the province, were busy with COVID-19 shots, Naus said.

Dr. Sam Wong, director of medical affairs for the Canadian Paediatric Society, said disinformation and vaccine hesitancy during the pandemic, “combined with the failure of the public health system” to provide routine vaccines, mean certain populations could be left vulnerable to highly contagious diseases like measles, which spreads through coughing and sneezing.

“You could walk into a room an hour after someone’s been in there and potentially get infected,” he said.

“We’re worried, as a group of health-care providers, that if you have lower rates of vaccinations that you’re more likely to have localized outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses such as measles or mumps and chickenpox,” Wong said.

Wong said it’s important for doctors and parents to discuss the importance of routine vaccinations that have been proven effective for decades, adding some people believe young kids’ immune systems are not ready so they’d rather wait until they’re older.

“But that’s why you want to give the vaccine, because their immune system is not able to fight off infections,” he said.

“Some parents don’t want to even have discussions with me about it. But if there is an opening, I’m happy to talk about it,” said Wong, who works in Yellowknife, Edmonton and Victoria.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said Canadian studies have found immunization coverage declined during the pandemic for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

Quebec saw a 39 per cent drop in April 2020 compared with 2019, the agency said, with the greatest impact seen in children aged 18 months.

In Alberta, the agency said vaccination for those diseases declined by 10 per cent in April 2020 compared with the same month a year earlier. Coverage for Ontario children under two decreased by 1.7 per cent, it added.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada continues to work with provinces and territories on an ongoing basis to understand the impact of the pandemic on routine immunization coverage across Canada, and to improve the availability of high-quality data to inform immunization programs,” it said in a statement.

It is currently in discussions with all jurisdictions on ways to monitor coverage of vaccines, similar to a surveillance system used for COVID-19 vaccines, the agency said.

Nova Scotia Health said its last report on childhood vaccines was completed three years ago, and numbers have fallen during the pandemic.

“Anecdotally, we know there was a drop in childhood vaccination, but we do not have the specific numbers available at this time,” it said in a statement.

However, the school immunization program is aiming to help students catch up on vaccines that were missed early in the pandemic, mostly through doctors’ offices, it said, adding that getting an appointment was a challenge for some families.

“We know that a substantial number of Nova Scotians do not have a family doctor. Public Health often works with local primary care clinics to provide vaccines to those who do not have a family doctor and some public health offices will offer clinics to this population.”

Last week, the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement saying a record high of nearly 40 million children missed first and second doses of the measles vaccine in 2021 due to disruptions in immunization programs since the start of the pandemic.

The two groups said there were an estimated nine million measles cases and 128,000 related deaths worldwide in 2021, and 22 countries experienced large outbreaks.

Dr. Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said a national registry that could quickly tell doctors which children have not been vaccinated is essential in Canada.

“I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall,” she said of her efforts to call for that change.

“How can we do proper health-care planning when we don’t have the data?”

Canada is an “outlier” that lags behind most European countries on the measles vaccine, she said, adding a coverage rate of 95 per cent is needed to create so-called herd immunity against the highly infectious disease.

Canada recently had 84 per cent uptake of the second dose of the measles vaccine. MacDonald said Australia, in comparison, had 94 per cent based on the most recent data from the WHO. She used the two countries as an example because they had a similar number of births _ 368,000 in Canada, and 300,000 in Australia in 2021.

“We are just not in the same league, and we should be embarrassed.”

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Northumberland Hills Hospital declares COVID-19 outbreak – 93.3 myFM

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Northumberland Hills Hospital has declared an outbreak in COVID-19 cases.

The hospital is experiencing its first surge in COVID-19 cases since October 2022.

They’ve temporarily paused visiting to NHH’s Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit due to four active COVID-19 cases among admitted inpatients.

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Visiting continues as usual outside the unit unless patients are in isolation for COVID-19 infection or exposure.

Written by Lee McConnell

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Top doctor says Ontario 'must remain vigilant' past flu peak, COVID variant advances – TimminsToday

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TORONTO — Ontario’s top doctor says even though COVID-19 and flu activity is declining, the province “must remain vigilant” as a more transmissible variant gains ground. 

In a statement, Dr. Kieran Moore says parts of Ontario are reporting a rise in the number of cases of the more easily spreadable XBB 1.5 variant of COVID-19. 

He says while the new strain has not been associated with more severe illness, infections could climb as it becomes the “main variant in Ontario.”

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Moore says Ontario is seeing a decline in COVID, respiratory syncytial virus and flu activity throughout the province, offering some relief to hard-hit hospitals.

In recent weeks, Ontario pediatric hospitals have ramped up surgeries after a three-month surge of flu and RSV cases pushed them to redeploy staff to intensive care units and emergency departments. 

Moore says flu cases peaked at the end of November and continue to decline.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023. 

The Canadian Press

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UBC biotech spin-off raises $75M to bring cancer treatments to patients – UBC Faculty of Medicine – UBC Faculty of Medicine

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With roots in UBC research, Alpha-9 Theranostics is developing cancer radiotherapies that target tumours while avoiding healthy tissues.

Alpha-9 Theranostics, a UBC spin-off company founded by three university researchers, has raised $75 million to develop next-generation radiopharmaceuticals that promise to meaningfully improve treatment for people with cancer.

Based on more than a decade of ground-breaking research at UBC and BC Cancer, the cancer drugs act like a homing device — seeking out tumours to deliver targeted radiation treatment, while having minimal impact on nearby healthy tissues. This precision targeting results in drugs that can be more effective and have fewer side effects for patients than traditional radiation treatments.

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“We founded this company to turn the research we were doing at UBC and BC Cancer into treatments that will help patients thrive and, ultimately, save lives,” says Dr. François Bénard, one of the company’s co-founders, and a radiology professor at UBC’s faculty of medicine and senior executive director of the BC Cancer Research Institute. “Seeing these treatments move into clinical testing following more than a decade of basic and translational research is inspiring and the result of a tremendous collaborative effort. This new financing will further accelerate development, bringing new cancer treatments to patients faster.”

Alpha-9’s radiopharmaceuticals are designed to treat a range of solid and hematologic cancers such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphoma. According to Dr. David Hirsch, chief executive officer of Alpha-9, the $75 million in Series B financing will enable the company to bring its first five treatments into clinical trials with patients over the next two years.

“Thanks to the cutting-edge research at UBC, these radiotherapies have tremendous potential to address a wide range of cancers,” says Dr. Hirsch. “In the coming years, we plan to progress multiple treatments into first-in-human clinical trials, harnessing the potential of radiopharmaceuticals to realize more effective treatments for people living with cancer.”

From UBC labs to successful start-up

Alpha-9 was founded in 2019 by Dr. Bénard alongside UBC professors Drs. Kuo-Shyan Lin and David Perrin. But it was a decade earlier that the trio first started working together.

Dr. Perrin, a UBC professor of chemistry, had invented a new method to easily tag molecules with fluorine-18, a radioisotope widely used for cancer imaging. He and Dr. Bénard started exploring how to use this method to label peptides — small molecules that seek out and attach to unique proteins that exist on the surface of tumours — to improve cancer diagnosis.

At the same time, Dr. Lin, a UBC radiology professor and senior scientist at BC Cancer, was developing new cancer-targeting peptides and working with Dr. Bénard to label them with therapeutic radioisotopes. Instead of emitting gamma rays used for imaging, these radioisotopes emit particles, called alpha and beta particles, that destroy cancer cells.

According to Dr. Lin, they each brought unique expertise from their respective disciplines that helped bridge the worlds of cancer diagnostics and therapy.

“Our work was very complimentary and we realized there was tremendous potential to apply it across both the diagnostics and therapeutics spaces. We knew we would need both components, because if we want to do therapy, we also need a diagnostic companion to identify patients who will benefit from therapy,” says Dr. Lin.

Leveraging a team science approach, the researchers began developing peptides that home in on cancer cells, and combining them with diagnostic radioisotopes for cancer localization and treatment planning, and with therapeutic radioisotopes to seek and eliminate cancer cells.

“We founded this company to turn the research we were doing at UBC and BC Cancer into treatments that will help patients thrive and, ultimately, save lives.”
Dr. François Bénard
Professor of Radiology

The researchers filed a number of patents for the technologies they developed and worked with UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office and the Technology Development Office at BC Cancer to license the technology and eventually form Alpha-9. Dr. Bénard is quick to credit the success to their multi-disciplinary teams, saying that many of the research trainees continue to play a central role in the company today.

“UBC trainees and students were instrumental in the initial research and several have now taken up leadership roles within the company to lead the science,” says Dr. Bénard. “It’s one of the many benefits of doing business in B.C. There are many highly-skilled science trainees that come out of UBC, creating a rich environment for companies to thrive in Vancouver.”

Dr. Julie Rousseau was one of those trainees, working as a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Bénard’s lab from 2015 to 2019. Now, she’s Alpha-9’s associate director of translational biology.

“During my UBC postdoctoral training with Dr. Bénard, I was trained in preclinical drug screening, target selection, as well as radiopharmaceutical development strategies. I also had the opportunity to hone my mentorship and leadership skills by training undergraduate and graduate trainees within the lab. This exceptional training period has allowed me to assume a leadership role at Alpha-9.”

B.C. a leader in cancer research

Three years after being founded, Alpha-9 has grown to over 15 employees. The company has a research and development facility located in Vancouver as well as offices in Boston.

Alpha-9 plans to leverage the new round of investor financing to continue expanding over the coming year, growing its workforce to as many as 45 employees by the end of 2023. Construction is also underway on a new research facility in the Mount Pleasant area of Vancouver that will house the company’s chemistry, biology, translational research and radiochemistry teams, as well as support product formulation.

According to Dr. Bénard, it’s a testament to B.C.’s established leadership in cancer research.

“Vancouver is home to tremendous experience in radiopharmaceutical development and nuclear medicine that makes it an ideal location for these research labs,” says Dr. Bénard. “There’s a critical mass of expertise that is driving biomedical innovation, in part because of the rich talent and research coming out of UBC, and the broader ecosystem that includes world-leading organizations like BC Cancer and TRIUMF, as well as a range of established and emerging biotech companies.”

For Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean of UBC’s faculty of medicine and vice-president, health, Alpha-9 is another example of how UBC researchers are driving innovation to tackle today’s most pressing health challenges.

“UBC researchers are accelerating the discovery and development of new treatments for a range of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes,” says Dr. Kelleher. “Investors and companies are taking notice of the talent and expertise that exists here and its proximity to the university. They’re increasingly choosing B.C. as a place to invest and grow their business, which is in turn, creating jobs and bringing new treatments to British Columbians sooner.”

Improving patient outcomes

For Dr. Bénard, what’s most exciting about Alpha-9’s rapid growth is the potential to impact patients.

“We’re not talking about 10 or 20 years down the road. There are real short-term objectives to open up multiple clinical trials with patients in the coming years.”

“Thanks to the cutting-edge research at UBC, these radiotherapies have tremendous potential to address a wide range of cancers.”
Dr. David Hirsch
Chief Executive Officer, Alpha-9

Dr. Bénard says that Alpha-9’s new radiopharmaceuticals will add an additional treatment option that is different, yet complementary, to existing approaches. And because the treatments are highly-targeted and designed to avoid healthy tissues, patients undergoing treatment could see fewer side effects and enjoy a greater quality of life.

“Patients are what this is all about. While there have been leaps and bounds in terms of cancer treatment options in recent decades, it remains the leading cause of mortality in Canada. We have a real opportunity to change that and improve outcomes for people living with cancer.”


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Published: January 26, 2023

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