An influenza virus that scientists believe migrated from pigs to people before touching off a global pandemic was the runaway selection for the top Canadian news story of 2009.
The H1N1 virus was chosen by 70 per cent of the newspaper editors and broadcast news directors in the annual year-end survey of newsrooms conducted by The Canadian Press.
“There isn’t a Canadian out there who isn’t affected by or interested in the virus and how it may affect their families,” said Sandy Heimlich-Hall, assistant news director at CFJC-TV in Kamloops, B.C.
“It was a coast-to-coast story that people followed with interest no matter where they lived in Canada,” agreed Lesley Sheppard, managing editor of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, in Moose Jaw, Sask.
H1N1, also known as swine flu, was the runaway pick as the issue that made the most headlines over the last year. The inquiry into the tragic death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after being Tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport, came a distant second with just nine per cent of the vote.
For better or worse, the first flu pandemic of the 21st century was the story on the minds of the nation’s editors. A number, though, felt it received more play than it deserved.
“The H1N1 flu scare is almost more famous for the way it was handled by the media than how it spread wildly across the country,” said Victor Krasowski, news director of radio station CJUK in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Rocco Frangione, Krasowski’s counterpart at CFXN Radio in North Bay, Ont., agreed H1N1 was more hype than threat.
“The way health organizations spun this issue, I expected people to be falling dead in the street,” Frangione said. “It didn’t happen and once again the so-called experts got it wrong when it comes to a new virus hitting people.”
But there was no way of knowing what was in store in mid-April, when flu scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control discovered two children in California had been infected with the same type of swine influenza virus. Neither had known contact with pigs or each other.
The virus was a new hybrid of genes from two flu viruses that circulate among pigs in North America, Europe and Asia. While it’s believed the virus evolved in swine, it was found in people before it was found in pigs.
The CDC alerted the World Health Organization and on April 21, reported the findings to the public. “I think this is one of those situations where everyone will want to stay tuned,” Dr. Nancy Cox, the CDC’s flu division chief, warned presciently.
Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg figured out in short order that the virus was also behind an alarming outbreak of respiratory disease in Mexico, which seemed to be killing previously healthy young people.
It took several weeks for the WHO to declare the first pandemic in 41 years, but the delay had more to do with politics than the virus, which rapidly made its way to dozens of countries.
Despite the somewhat misleading early reports from Mexico, the illness caused by the virus was largely mild. For most people, an encounter with H1N1 was merely a bout of the flu.
Most – but not all.
As the virus spread and case counts mounted, intensive care units began to fill up with children, teens and adults whose ravaged lungs were unable to function. The elderly, usually those considered most vulnerable to influenza, were in large measure spared.
By year’s end, H1N1 had claimed at least 400 lives in Canada and more than 11,500 worldwide. The toll would have been higher but for modern science and advanced medical care, insisted Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer.
“The big difference between the (pandemics of the) ’50s and ’60s and now in Canada is the addition of (the) ability to rapidly produce a vaccine, the antivirals, the more effective hospital care,” Butler-Jones said.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, these kids – of which the majority have survived the ICU experience, the ventilation experience – they would have died. They didn’t have the complex medications, ventilators, etc., that kept people alive through this particular pandemic.”
The pandemic vaccine was a mixed success, however. The new virus didn’t grow well for vaccine manufacturers. Low yields meant vaccine deliveries started later than public health officials would have liked.
And the initial days of the vaccine delivery efforts were chaotic. Scarce supplies and the tragic death of 13-year-old Evan Frustaglio – a previously healthy hockey-playing kid who collapsed in his father’s arms in Toronto – combined to drive Canadians to form frustratingly long lines at mass vaccination clinics.
By the time large amounts of vaccine became available, concerns about H1N1 had eased.
The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates somewhere between 40 and 45 per cent of Canadians have been vaccinated. While that will likely turn out to be one of the highest rates around the world, it is well below what officials had anticipated when they planned for the pandemic.
In many respects, the H1N1 outbreak resembles the Indian story of the group of blind men who try to describe an elephant based on the part of the beast each touches.
To people whose lives have gone unscathed by the virus, H1N1 was an overhyped blip. To families like the Frustaglios, it has been a heart-rending tragedy. To the staff of intensive care units, it posed a unique and frightening challenge.
To the World Health Organization, it was – and remains – a threat not to be taken lightly.
“I can’t count the number of times that I have said, ’We cannot predict what’s going to happen in the future. It could go this way, it could go that way,”’ said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the global health agency’s special adviser on pandemic influenza.
“But our job is to try to make sure that whatever direction events take place, the fewest people are harmed. That’s our business. That’s what we try to do.”
Fukuda suggested armchair quarterbacks who now insist that it was clear months ago that H1N1 wasn’t a real threat don’t know influenza.
“It is not true. And in fact, it’s still not true,” he insisted.
“One of the questions which one can pose is, in February or March or January, is the continent of North America likely to see another wave? And the answer is: Nobody knows.”
Fukuda continued: “And in that time period, is it possible that the virus would make some kind of change and things would get more severe? The answer is: It is possible. Would it happen? Nobody knows. And that remains as true now as it was in April when things were first starting.”