Chief medical officer orders pre-holiday flu preparations

Community gatherings should continue, he says


Nunavut’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Jim Talbot, says Nunavummiut should go ahead and attend traditional Christmas dances, feasts, games and church services this year, as long as they wash their hands frequently and stay home if they feel ill.

“It’s our hope that we won’t be asking anybody to postpone any of those events because they are important to the community’s health … spiritual, psychological, mental and emotional – those are all components of healthy people in healthy communities,” Talbot said.

A new, hard-hitting flu virus, known as “Fujian A,” struck early this year, infecting scores of people in Sanikiluaq and Cambridge Bay before it was brought under control.

In response, Talbot recommended that public gatherings and athletic events planned for Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Rankin Inlet and Chesterfield Inlet be postponed until the New Year.

But he is not recommending that any community festivities across Nunavut be postponed, for now, as long as people take normal precautions.

Talbot is, however, using his powers under the Public Health Act to ensure that Nunavut’s health department isn’t caught off-guard by short-staffing over the holiday period.

Last week, Talbot issued a directive giving himself and the deputy minister of health and social services the power to cancel staff holidays if they have to.

Under the directive, GN health-care providers and public health staff must submit all leave requests to him or to the deputy minister for approval, until after “this period of public health and safety risk from influenza has passed.” That includes all employee vacations that may have been previously approved.

Talbot said this doesn’t mean that all Christmas travel for Nunavut health-care workers has been cancelled. He said it’s simply to give them the ability to cancel staff vacations if a flu outbreak in a community gets serious.

“Myself and the deputy minister will assess people’s requests for leave,” Talbot said. “We assume that the vast majority of leaves will go through, but we need to have the option in case one of the situations becomes serious to the health of a community.

Talbot’s directive — which overrides the collective agreement — also gives him the power to relocate any health care provider to another community for a short period “to deliver additional control measures to respond to and control the influenza outbreak in that community.”

He said, however, that Nunavut’s flu vaccination program this year may lessen the impact of the Fujian A virus.

In some communities, Talbot said, as many as 75 per cent of residents have received flu shots.

“That’s just an amazing rate. It speaks very well of the community health nurses, the community health representatives, and the communities themselves. They’re doing just a fabulous job.”

This year’s vaccine, however, does not contain Fujian A, and may not provide complete protection against it, Talbot said.

That’s because Fujian A is a new strain. However, the 2003 vaccine will likely provide partial protection. So even if people who do get infected after a flu shot, they will recover more quickly and suffer milder symptoms.

“Vaccination programs are important everywhere, but here they are even more important, because they are the things that are responsible for reducing the number of medevacs and the amount of serious illness,” Talbot said.

And if strong public health measures need to be taken to deal with an outbreak, Talbot said he prefers to take a co-operative approach, rather than to issue orders under the Public Health Act.

“In the end, virtually everything we’ve done thus far, we’ve done in partnership with the local authorities, and its been a joint decision, and it’s been done on a joint recommendation, and not on our order.”

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