TORONTO – Canadian military officials in Afghanistan said detainees are being offered swine flu vaccinations — a decision the federal health minister on Tuesday denounced as "outrageous" at a time there is a shortage of the vaccine in Canada.
The Defense Department later said there is no plan to vaccinate Afghan detainees in Canadian custody.
In Afghanistan, Task Force Surgeon Cmdr. Rob Briggs had told the Canadian Press that detainees being held at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan would be given the chance to get vaccinated beginning Wednesday. Canadian soldiers have been receiving the vaccine for more than a week.
"That is something we are going to press forward with, at least offering whether or not they want the immunization," Briggs said.
But news of the vaccination policy touched off a controversy back home where vaccine shortages have hampered the country's largest-ever mass vaccination effort, causing long lines and widespread frustration at clinics.
"We've always said that ensuring Canadians receive the vaccine is a priority. Personally I'm very disturbed by the news, and I can say that we did not make this outrageous decision. I have asked my officials to look into that," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said.
Late Tuesday in Ottawa, a Defense Department spokesman in Ottawa issued a terse statement clarifying the policy.
Maj. Jason Proulx said that offering H1N1 vaccinations to Afghan detainees "would be based on medical need and at this point there is no plan to vaccinate."
He would not elaborate on the short statement.
The decision in Afghanistan came after Canadian medical staff sought legal advice on whether they should be offering the shot to Afghans suspected of Taliban involvement. They were told that the Geneva Conventions require prisoners of war to receive the same treatment as Canadian soldiers.
Maj. Mario Couture, Task Force Kandahar's senior public affairs officer, said doses of the vaccine being made available to Afghan detainees would come from army stockpiles. He said the military had secured sufficient quantities of the vaccine several months ago and has enough to treat both detainees and soldiers.