Influenza Pandemics - Q&A with Dr. Allison McGeer Iqaluit NU
Cambridge Bay, NU
Influenza Pandemics - Q&A with Dr. Allison McGeer
Q: When can we expect an influenza pandemic?
A: There are a lot of unknowns about the next influenza pandemic. We do know, though, that pandemics strike every 30 to 40 years, and the last pandemic was 40 years ago. We are due. Experts agree a global influenza pandemic - one that will affect every country in the world - is not a matter of "if," but a matter of when.
Q: What is the difference between the influenza we see in the winter every year, and a pandemic?
A. There are two types of influenza. Seasonal influenza (which is sometimes referred to as "the
flu") is a human influenza that changes slightly each year by mutation. Almost everyone has had influenza at some time in the past, so their immune system responds relatively quickly to a new infection with a virus that is just changed a bit, and most people don't get too sick. Pandemic influenza results from the development of a completely new virus. No one in the population has been infected with anything related to this new virus, so the virus spreads very rapidly around the world, and makes many people sick
No one can predict what the pandemic strain will be, or when an influenza pandemic will exactly occur, but experts are watching a variety of changing viruses - including H5N1 (avian or 'bird' flu) - very closely.
Q: Should I be worried about Avian Influenza? It hasn't come to Canada yet.
A: Actually, there are many different strains of avian influenza, and some are in Canada. There have been two outbreaks of avian influenza due to type H7N3 viruses among poultry in Canada - one in 2004 and one in 2007. But, these were not the same strains of avian influenza that we are hearing about in the news - H5N1 - which has caused major outbreaks in poultry, and serious disease in humans in other parts of the world.
Thankfully, Canada has remained clear of the H5N1 strain so far, and it does not at the moment spread easily from person to person. Experts agree, however that no one knows if H5N1 influenza can develop into a pandemic strain, or what the new pandemic strain will be. With widespread air travel, urbanization and overcrowded living conditions in cities, we need to be aware that the next pandemic strain of influenza could reach our soil quickly, and we need to be prepared.
Q: So how do we reduce the amount of illness and death an influenza pandemic will cause in Canadians?
A: Canada has a pandemic plan in place and it's a good start, but more needs to be done - by government, institutions and corporations - to reduce the human toll and economic damage that an influenza pandemic will bring to Canada.
There are three main components to the plan to protect Canadians from illness due to influenza during the pandemic. Vaccine is critical: however, it takes take three to six months to produce a vaccine after the pandemic virus has been isolated and identified. Thus, other measures are needed until vaccines are available. Public health measures - like washing your hands frequently, staying home when you are sick, and staying away from other people will also provide protection. There are also medications called antivirals (or anti-influenza medications) that can be used to treat and prevent influenza. Antivirals may help to slow the spread of influenza, and prevent severe illness in those who become infected.
Canada has a pandemic contract in place to ensure vaccine production and delivery to Canadians as quickly as possible during the next pandemic. Governments and public health units are working hard to identify the best ways to identify and implement public health measures. Federal and provincial governments are also stockpiling antiviral medications, because they cannot be made quickly enough to order them once the pandemic has started. So far, Canada has stockpiled enough antivirals to treat about one in every 6 Canadians. Unlike other G7 nations, we do not yet have any antivirals stockpiled to be used to prevent infection.
Dr. McGeer is a microbiologist and infectious disease consultant in the department of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital (Toronto).