OTTAWA – The chief public health officer is assuring Canadians that a decision to declare the swine flu outbreak a pandemic changes little in how the country is dealing with the virus.
The World Health Organization has formally notified Dr. David Butler-Jones and health officials worldwide that it is raising the pandemic alert to its highest level – the first such declaration since the 1968 Hong Kong flu.
However, Butler-Jones is stressing that the decision only means the virus is spreading and not that it has become more dangerous.
“We in Canada have been dealing with H1 since the beginning,” he told The Canadian Press in an email.
“So going from Level 5 to 6 only reflects broader spread internationally of what we have already seen.”
Government officials were to hold a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday afternoon.
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.
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 2,978 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.
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.”
The Public Health Agency’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.