Commentary  Vaccinations should not be for sale

Last week, the Montreal Gazette reported that the Jewish General Hospital, a McGill teaching hospital, gave H1N1 vaccines to 200 top donors and board members ahead of schedule. According to their executive director, Hartley Stern, many of these donors are also volunteers, so they, like other support staff, were inoculated in the event primary caregivers become ill themselves.

However, Stern also acknowledged that the vaccine has not been given to all volunteers and that he did not know how urgent the work performed by the donor-volunteers was. Stern admitted that he was at fault for not knowing this, but went on to say that Jewish General should be judged by the positive work it has done so far, like being the first to inoculate critical staff and very sick patients, and the first to volunteer to help the Agence de la santé with chronically ill patients.

Stern’s semi-apology misses the point. Giving top financial donors preference is nepotism. This isparticularly disturbing when it is taken into account that at 35 deaths, Quebec is the Canadian province the second hardest hit by the flu. Prioritizing some incidentally wealthy volunteers over others is not adequate justification, especially as volunteers do not provide primary care or engage with patients at the same level of intensity or responsibility as doctors and nurses. The fact that Stern wants to sweep this under the rug by appealing to the hospital’s past work is also problematic, because it ignores the precedent set by the Jewish General.

Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc has stated his disapproval of privileging donors, but that he doesn’t want to carry out a witch-hunt against the hospital. Bolduc makes a fair point, but he should take greater steps to ensure inoculation is carried out in a transparent manner. Stern told the press that one family offered him $50,000 for the vaccination, and doctors have reported similar cases.

As the winter sets in and cases spike, so will the potential for this kind of hysteria – and the government needs to make sure priority doesn’t go to those who can pay, but those who are most vulnerable to H1N1: children and the elderly for medical reasons; residents of First Nations reserves and individuals with limited resources because of the way the structures of our society marginalize them.

Stern will likely not issue any further apology for Jewish General, but its silent partner – McGill – has yet to comment. Just last week, Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson criticized the fact that McGill can’t control the distribution of vaccines on campus. Given McGill’s affiliation with at least six hospitals in Montreal, the University should take a strong stance to discourage this form of nepotism.