Dr. Janet McElhaney received the Jonas Salk Lifetime Achievement Award in February for her work on immunization. (Courtesy of Dr. Janet McElhaney)

Dr. Janet McElhaney received the Jonas Salk Lifetime Achievement Award in February for her work on immunization. (Courtesy of Dr. Janet McElhaney)

Island researcher receives prestigious lifetime award for work on immunization

Dr. Janet McElhaney studies the relationship between vaccines, age and the immune system

A new Saanich resident has been instrumental in ensuring the safe vaccination of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Janet McElhaney, who recently moved to Vancouver Island, dedicated the last 30 years of her life to studying influenza – the flu – and the role vaccinations play in preventing disability in older adults. She has dedicated much of her time to researching how vaccines could better meet the needs of older people’s immune systems and to educating those people on the importance of being vaccinated.

Her skill set became particularly sought after last year as COVID-19 vaccines became developed and governments asked themselves how to best educate people on them. In October, McElhaney was invited to join several federal task groups to help instill confidence in the vaccines among the general public.

It is for all this work that in February McElhaney was awarded the Jonas Salk Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes one Canadian scientist or researcher each year who has made an outstanding contribution to prevent, alleviate or eliminate a physical disability.

McElhaney coined the term “vaccine-preventable disability,” which recognizes that when older adults contract influenza it can leave them unable to perform basic daily tasks like feeding or bathing themselves. She is adamant that all older people, regardless of how healthy they feel, should be receiving the flu shot every year.

She is even more adamant that everyone should be receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s been all about managing mis- and disinformation,” McElhaney said, noting the unfounded doubts that have been spread around the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Convincing older people who have seen the heavy impact COVID-19 has had hasn’t been too hard, she said, but the next hurdle is convincing the younger population. The task group’s approach there will be to show younger people that a vaccine is their ticket to freedom.

McElhaney said she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, but that perhaps her greatest strength is her ability to create a great team.

“I’ve been really good at surrounding myself with great people,” she said.

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RELATED: B.C. should help 20-39 year olds ‘just like we did for seniors’ amid COVID surge: Furstenau

RELATED: B.C.’s frontline worker vaccine program in flux as AstraZeneca use paused for under-55s


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