Major outbreak would trigger quarantines, travel bans

Bird flu scare prompts Nunavik pandemic plan


KUUJJUAQ – If a pandemic flu hits Quebec, airline passengers won't be able to freely travel between Nunavik and the South for three months or longer.

Isolating Nunavik is the cornerstone of the Nunavik regional health board's "regional preventive isolation" plan to stop a pandemic – a worldwide outbreak of illness – from entering the region.

The board's plan means that when airline passengers from Nunavik travel south during a pandemic, they will not be able to return without first going through a period of enforced isolation, called a quarantine.

Medical evacuations for Nunavik patients requiring special medical care will continue, but flights will be directed to the northern regional centre of Chibougamou rather than Montreal, which would likely be overwhelmed with flu cases should a pandemic occur.

Food destined for Nunavik will be kept in quarantine for at least 48 hours to make sure it's free of any traces of the virus. Then, aircraft would transport the food to local airports, where crew and pilots would not disembark or have any personal contact with anyone on the ground.

Air travel within Nunavik would continue, but if a community falls ill, all travel to and from the affected community would cease.

"We are proposing, since we don't have roads, [that] the only way is to stop human travel for the period at risk," public health director Serge Déry told councillors at the Kativik Regional Government's recent council meeting in Kuujjuaq.

A future pandemic could be caused by a new virus resembling the deadly influenzas of the past or by the H5N1 bird flu virus strain.

For now, the H5N1 bird flu is transmitted only by direct contact with affected birds, but that could change.

However, the World Health Organization says if bird flu does spread to human beings, this virus has the potential to assume pandemic proportions. The say it could spreading around the world and kill up to 150 million people.

There's "no immediate threat" of a pandemic, Déry said.

But public health experts do expect another pandemic, similar to the one that killed 40 million in 1918.

That's why Déry wants the KRG council's support for a pandemic prevention and containment plan that would require the full cooperation of every community in the region.

"It's obvious we have to be prepared for it," said Akulivik's region councilor, Eli Aullaluk.

Déry said that if a pandemic strikes, one in three people in southern Quebec could fall ill or die, and more than seven in 10 in Nunavik could be hit.

The pandemic could affect Nunavik strongly because overcrowded houses encourage viruses to spread quickly.

The young age of the region's population, its vulnerability to lung diseases and the difficult access to specialized medical care are other factors that make Nunavik vulnerable.

The pandemic would sweep over Nunavik in two waves from eight to 12 weeks long, with a few months between each wave.

The region-wide lock-down would continue until the first wave of the illness ended, and a vaccine could be manufactured.

But there won't be 11,000 doses of the vaccination produced, Déry said, so not everyone would be able to receive a vaccination that may offer some protection against the pandemic.

The KRG council appeared supportive of the health board's isolation plan to fight a pandemic, with KRG chairman Maggie Emudluk saying there's "finally something positive about isolation."

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