WINNIPEG - The province that experienced an acute outbreak of swine flu on its northern reserves is making it easier for aboriginals and other vulnerable patients to get free antiviral drugs in a bid to lessen the impact of the virus come fall.

Manitoba has set out who can get Tamiflu more quickly under its pharmacare program. The groups include aboriginals, those with underlying medical conditions, pregnant women, smokers and the obese. The homeless and those with immune deficiencies, including cancer patients, will also get priority.

The changes, which will make it easier for doctors to prescribe Tamiflu quickly, were set out in a regulation that takes effect Aug. 18. People who don't meet the medical criteria can still buy a prescription for Tamiflu but it may not be covered by the province.

Under the old system, doctors had to justify each prescription which involved phone calls, faxes and paperwork.

Provincial Health Minister Theresa Oswald said her government wants to make sure that those who need the antivirals get them quickly.

"The timely administration of Tamiflu ... may have an impact on lessening the severity of the illness," she said. "We want to make sure all of the groundwork is laid so we're able to deploy antivirals as quickly and as seamlessly as possible."

Although health officials caution antiviral drugs aren't a "silver bullet," some experts say other provinces are likely to follow Manitoba's example if they aren't already.

Jeff Poston, executive director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association, said few provinces experienced such "large, localized" outbreaks as Manitoba did in its remote northern aboriginal communities in the spring.

"Largely as a result of the experience that took place in Manitoba, all provinces and jurisdictions are probably reviewing what their rules are around access to Tamiflu," he said. "People are putting plans in place to make sure people who need the product are going to be able to get it."

Aboriginal chiefs from Manitoba's hardest-hit communities had been pressing the government for antiviral drugs in anticipation of a resurgence this fall. Many patients were airlifted from a cluster of reserves in a remote area 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg that has fewer than 10,000 residents.

But David Harper, chief of the Garden Hill First Nation in the affected area, said he's not counting on any level of government anymore. While he said the province might be making it easier for some aboriginals to get antivirals, it doesn't matter much to remote communities that don't have pharmacies. He added his community of 4,000 only received 154 doses of Tamiflu during the last outbreak.

He's soliciting corporate donations to buy antivirals and other medical supplies.

"We have no choice in the matter," Harper said. "They can have all the Tamiflu sitting in Winnipeg, but when it comes to preparedness, we need Tamiflu throughout the north."

Still, experts caution that antivirals are only one tool in the fight against the virus. They are still urging people to wash their hands regularly and stay home if they fall ill.

"There is no silver bullet when it comes to dealing with the issues of H1N1," Oswald said. "The administration of an antiviral is not the singular solution ... It's but one piece of a complex plan."

Gail Keeley, an acting director with Manitoba's drug program, said they don't know how much the coverage will cost since they don't know how many people will fall ill with the virus.

"It all depends on what the virus does."

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