OTTAWA – The federal government is not recommending school closures to forestall what it expects will be a resurgent flu season for the H1N1 virus.
In fact, Canada’s chief public health officer says closing schools could actually make matters worse by dispersing kids from a controlled school environment into the streets and malls where they might infect the elderly.
Dr. David Butler-Jones and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq released federal guidelines Wednesday for Canada’s public schools, daycare centres, post-secondary institutions and boarding schools just a couple of weeks before classes resume in most provinces.
The guidelines essentially preach common-sense prevention techniques – such as hand-washing, coughing into sleeves and more frequent cleaning of washrooms and other high-traffic areas – along with increased monitoring for the incidence of flu cases among students.
As Butler-Jones put it: “Simple guidelines can go a long way here.”
Closing schools is highly disruptive to people’s lives and of limited benefit in arresting the spread of the flu virus, he said.
“If you close the school based on a few cases, essentially what you’re doing is taking a controlled situation . . . and creating an uncontrolled situation.”
Aglukkaq reported that 67 Canadians have now died as a result of the H1N1 virus.
But the vast majority of cases continue to be mild. Reports out of the Southern Hemisphere – where the winter flu season is just ending – suggest the disease is levelling off without any sharp uptick in the severity of individual cases.
“Certainly in the Southern Hemisphere, things have tapered off in the way that you would expect in the more normal flu season,” said Butler-Jones.
He noted the experience of Argentina and Chile, where different isolation measures were taken with little effect. Argentina proactively closed schools, while its neighbour across the Andes did not.
“The closing of schools, while theoretically may be helpful, as it turns out really doesn’t,” said Butler-Jones. “At most it might buy you a few days, and you really can’t keep schools closed for months on end.”
Regardless of the experience south of the equator, the chief public health officer said it remains impossible to predict exactly what course the flu will take in Canada this winter.
“But it would suggest that, at least so far, if you had to predict, the fall will be more of the same – and in much larger numbers, given the small numbers of people relatively that were infected in the first round (in Canada) and how many of us are susceptible.”
Canada won’t start vaccinating for the H1N1 virus until mid-November in anticipation of the peak flu season that occurs in January and February.