TORONTO – A dose of the coveted H1N1 vaccine is likely still weeks away for most Canadians, but there’s a host of familiar common-sense strategies people can employ to help keep themselves healthy in the meantime, experts say.
Practices like frequent hand-washing, disposing of used tissues, “sleeve sneezing” and establishing healthy routines for adults and children alike are more pressing than ever with Canada’s vaccine supply slowing to a trickle, doctors and public health officials said Monday.
“Those messages have been hammered from the very beginning, and none of that changes,” said Michael Gardam, director of infectious diseases at the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion.
“We’ve been living without the vaccine with this virus for six months, so that just continues on.”
Indeed, some doctors argue that the common-sense approach should extend beyond the swine-flu pandemic and ought to be applied to daily routines that will promote overall health.
Anyone who’s waiting to be vaccinated should work towards maintaining a strong immune system in the intervening weeks, said Dr. Peter Nieman, a Calgary pediatrician. Getting enough sleep and eating well are vital elements of any long-term health plan, he said.
Nieman said he also urges patients to compensate for the lack of natural sunlight at this time of year by taking vitamin D supplements – 400 units a day for children and up to 1,000 for adults.
It’s also important to avoid falling into “the trap of negative emotions” brought on by being forced to wait for the vaccine, he added.
“The public should just now say, ‘OK, I can’t control that, I can only control my attitude. I’m going to hope for the best and get the darn vaccine when it’s available.”‘
Parents with healthy children who are over the age of five and therefore not eligible for early access to the vaccine also face a daunting challenge in keeping their kids healthy.
Children are more difficult to control and may not be as receptive to traditional approaches such as hand-washing, Nieman and Gardam agree. But parents can take practical steps such as keeping kids at home if they have a fever and seeing a doctor immediately if they show symptoms of the flu.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, director of public health emergency management at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, said children can bring their own toys to doctors’ offices to avoid becoming infected through equipment in common waiting areas.
But Gardam acknowledged vaccines will be the most effective tool in the fight against swine flu among children. “The mainstay of … preventing childhood disease is vaccination, because once it’s done, it’s done.”
Gardam said one element of the national swine flu treatment plan has been overlooked in recent weeks – the massive stockpile of antiviral drugs ordered to treat those who fall victim to the virus.
He said those struck down with H1N1 should not hesitate to make use of the vast supplies of Tamiflu and Relenza sitting on Canadian pharmacy shelves.
“I know from data thus far in Canada that a fair percentage of people that ended up really sick and in hospital would have been eligible for antivirals and never got them,” Gardam said.
“So there is a component of that strategy that could certainly work better.”
Henry also supports greater reliance on antivirals, adding Canadians can pre-arrange prescriptions with their doctors so they can obtain medication quickly and easily in case illness strikes.