Health ministers and experts from 30 nations met in Ottawa, Tuesday, to discuss strategies to combat and potentially prevent a pandemic flu outbreak like the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed millions.
Of particular concern to officials was the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which has resulted in 150 million birds dying or being destroyed and has killed 62 of the 121 humans who have contracted the virus. The worry is that if the virus mutates to a form which is transferrable between humans, rather than from animal to human, it could become one of the most deadly diseases in human history.
Northern Health Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. David Bowering said Northern Health is developing a plan to deal with a pandemic outbreak.
“The likelihood is in the next decade there will be a major influenza outbreak or even a pandemic,” Bowering said. “With Avian Flu… we could be on the doorstep of a pandemic.”
Bowering said Northern Health is coordinating with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control on a plan and hope to run a tabletop simulation later this year to test readiness levels.
Northern Health is making sure surveillance systems are in place so doctors know what to look for and who to tell if they discover a potential risk.
Another priority is making sure hospitals have sufficient supplies of antivirals – including a drug called Tamiflu, which is the only known drug which has proven to lessen the affect of avian flu – masks, respirators and other equipment for treating respiratory conditions, Bowering said. If a pandemic strikes, he said, hospitals will overflow and Northern Health is coordinating with the city on where patients would be located.
“We’re also likely to be short-staffed,” Bowering said. “Health workers are not immune.”
Planning is underway around who will receive antiviral medication and how it will be distributed, Bowering added. The goal is limit and contain the infection as much as possible.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is buy time until a vaccine is available,” Bowering said. “We’re preparing for mass immunization clinics. We’re looking at potentially training people to do that. Normally public health nurses do immunizations, but we won’t be able to do business the way we ordinarily do, with people making appointments.”
Northern Health also plans to talk with local funeral directors about developing some “surge capacity” to handle the influx of dead, Bowering said. Too many bodies and not enough capacity to bury them was a major problem during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, he added.
Training is underway in the B.C. Emergency Response Management System, Bowering said, so that Northern Health workers will be “speaking the same language” with other health and emergency agencies.
Bowering said that the conference in Ottawa was a good step in the right direction.
The best way to protect yourself is to take every flu season seriously, get a flu shot, eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, wash your hands regularly and avoid people who are coughing or sneezing, Bowering said.