OTTAWA – The World Health Organization’s decision to declare the swine flu outbreak a pandemic is largely technical and people shouldn’t worry, says Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Aglukkaq told a news conference Thursday that the move means the virus is spreading worldwide, not that it has become more dangerous. And she said it doesn’t change the way Canada is dealing with the outbreak.
“Today’s WHO declaration is primarily a technical decision that is based on how the virus has spread, and does not reflect how severe it is,” she said.
“I want to reassure Canadians that their government and public health officials were prepared for this decision by the WHO and this decision does not change our approach here in Canada.
“Canada is well prepared for the situation. We have a national plan that we have been following.”
She noted that most cases in Canada have been mild, adding that health officials are working with First Nations leaders to deal with outbreaks in their communities.
Canada’s chief public health officer also played down concerns.
“We in Canada have been dealing with H1 since the beginning,” said Dr. David Butler-Jones.
“So going from Level 5 to 6 only reflects broader spread internationally of what we have already seen.”
The WHO formally notified health officials worldwide Thursday that it was raising the pandemic alert to its highest level – the first such declaration since the 1968 Hong Kong flu.
The virus appears to be on the wane after peaking last month.
Butler-Jones said lessons learned this spring during the flu’s first round are helping health officials plan and prepare for a likely resurgence in the fall.
“We will continue to adapt and respond to what we are actually seeing here and internationally,” he said.
The federal government has signed a contract with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to produce a new vaccine for swine flu when one is developed. Butler-Jones said a flu shot could be ready by the fall.
Other measures being taken include heightening surveillance, issuing guidelines to doctors and readying anti-viral medication.
Dr. Donald Low, an infectious disease expert and head of Ontario’s public laboratory system, said Canadian hospitals have been treating the virus as a pandemic for some time now.
“This has been a pandemic in pretty well anybody’s definition,” he said.
“The only thing that’s been missing is severity of disease and, fortunately, we’ve seen what has been quite a relatively mild disease. But things are changing.”
Canada has confirmed 3,047 cases of swine flu, most of them mild. Four people have died and another 138 have been hospitalized.
In recent days, the number of flu cases has shot up in the North and in remote aboriginal communities.
Nunavut’s caseload jumped this week to 143 confirmed cases. The flu has also spread across Manitoba’s First Nations communities.
The virus’s spread among Canada’s aboriginals has caught the attention of the WHO, which believes the disease can take a harsher toll on people facing poverty, substandard housing and underlying health problems.
The flu’s spread in aboriginal communities is particularly troubling, Low said.
“Some of these communities, the living standards are really a perfect breeding ground for the spread of a virus like this,” he said.
“You have four, five, six people living in one dwelling, not having access to clean water and being able to wash, never mind to protect others when somebody in that family comes down with disease.
“This is unfortunately the perfect environment for a virus to be able to spread.”
Extra nurses, doctors and supplies have been dispatched to a remote northern Manitoba reserve stricken by the flu, Aglukkaq said. The government is investigating the spread and severity of the flu among aboriginals.
Butler-Jones added there’s no evidence the flu affects aboriginals differently from anyone else.
“This is a disease that affects people – everybody, and the occasional pig herd,” he said. “Clearly it’s a human disease, it’s spread person-to-person. We’re obviously interested in all aspects of who’s at greater risk. …
“For the distinctions between different ethnic background or others, we may find that in the future, which will guide our guidelines and the way we practice. But at the moment, the evidence is that it doesn’t matter who you are. You can get this virus if you’re susceptible.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s website says the common flu sends about 20,000 Canadians to hospital each year. Between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians die of influenza and its complications annually, depending on the severity of the season.