Wash hands, experts advise

Nunavut, Nunavik on guard against swine flu

By CHRIS WINDEYER

No cases of swine flu have appeared in Nunavut as of Nunatsiaq News press-time this week, but the territory's health care system is in a state of "heightened surveillance" for the bug, says Nunavut's chief medical officer of health.

Dr. Isaac Sobol said anyone who has returned in the last week from Mexico, Texas, New York state, California, Kansas or Ohio and who exhibits flu-like symptoms should stay home, "self-isolate," and call a hospital or health centre for advice.

"The best thing to do is stay home, wash your hands ­frequently, cough or sneeze into your elbow," he said.

Anyone, whether they've been travelling or not, can reduce their chances of getting sick with any flu virus by washing their hands regularly or getting a flu shot, available for free at any health centre.

Sobol said Tuesday the Public Health Agency of Canada and the 13 provincial and territorial health agencies have yet to agree on a common set of protocols to handle potential cases of swine flu.

At Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit, signs urge anyone who has recently been to Mexico to see a nurse and be fitted with a surgical mask to cut the risk of infection.

But as of late Monday morning, it appeared that few if any of the masks had been handed out.

Public areas of the hospital are also equipped with numerous hand washing stations that dispense alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Sobol said it's impossible to say if Nunavummiut, with high rates of smoking, tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses are at greater risk of contracting or suffering from swine flu than other Canadians.

"It's a very good question, but because it's a novel virus, to even try to guess would be inappropriate," he said.

Swine flu emerged in Mexico in mid-April and quickly spread to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Israel, Spain and New Zealand. But only one person has died of the disease outside of Mexico, where swine flu is suspected, but not confirmed, in 152 deaths.

Sobol said he's concerned media reporting of the outbreak may have inflated the number of dead in Mexico.

"Not all of those deaths have been confirmed due to this virus. In fact, a very low number have been due to this virus," he said.

"One of the questions we're asking now… is this just as bad as the regular seasonal flu we see every year which kills 4,000 Canadians? If we're talking about a virus that's as bad as regular seasonal flu, what is the big deal?"

Federal public health officials have stepped up monitoring of the disease and infection controls. Thirteen cases of swine flu have been confirmed in Canada, four each in Nova Scotia and Ontario, three in British Columbia and two in Alberta.

Sobol said public health agencies across the country have been sharing information constantly since the outbreak began. "We are information sharing like crazy," he said.

That even extends across the normally partisan lines of the House of Commons.

Leona Aglukkaq, Nunavut's MP and the federal health minister, has done "a terrific job" handling the government response to the outbreak, federal Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett told the Canadian Press.

Still, health agencies now seem resigned that swine flu will continue to spread.

In a statement released this past Monday, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said "containment of the outbreak is not feasible. The current focus should be on mitigation measures."

The WHO also raised its pandemic alert from phase 3 to phase 4, which means that there's a greater chance the swine flu outbreak could lead to a pandemic, but that a pandemic is not inevitable.

Dr. Serge Déry, the Nunavik regional health board's director of public health, told Nunatsiaq News earlier this week that the spread of swine flu wasn't in any way severe enough yet to put the quarantine plan into action in the region.

Déry said that, for the moment, the emphasis is on ­prevention and providing information.

"We don't want people to panic. We don't want people to think that every time someone sneezes it's swine flu. But the situation changes from hour to hour," he said.

Déry said he participates in a daily 4 p.m. meeting among public health officials in Quebec to discuss the evolution of swine flu. According to the provincial plan, Quebec will harmonize its actions with rest of Canada and the United States, he said.

Nunavik's two hospitals in Puvirnituq and Kuujjuaq are equipped with face masks, a trilingual poster on how to use them, as well as a stock of tamiflu, a medication that may prevent or alleviate the worst symptoms of swine flu.

While there's not enough tamiflu to hand out to all Nunavimiut, Déry said the doses should help curb a wide-spread regional outbreak.

Some Nunavik residents have either recently returned from holidays in Mexico or are now in Mexico – but no cases of swine flu had been found in Quebec as of April 28, Déry emphasized.

This past Saturday, the World Health Organization dubbed the swine flu outbreak "a public health emergency of international concern" and urged "all countries [to] intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia."

Meanwhile, India and Malaysia have warned their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Canada, the Canadian Press reported, while Australia is urging its citizens who are ­travelling in Canada to see a doctor if they develop flu-like symptoms.

Health Canada is recommending the same for people who have recently visited California and Texas and who develop flu-like symptoms.

And the Public Health Agency of Canada has established a toll-free information line on swine flu. The number is 1-800-454-8302. Updated information is also available on the web at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca.

With files from Jane George

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