Parties gird for swine flu surge during campaign

Canada’s election agency is stockpiling hand sanitizer as it prepares for a possible election and a potential swine flu outbreak.

OTTAWA — Canada’s election agency is stockpiling hand sanitizer as it prepares for a possible election and a potential swine flu outbreak.

A spokeswoman for Elections Canada said Monday each polling station will have two bottles of hand sanitizer along with posters urging flu-stricken voters to cough into their sleeves and wash their hands.

“The health and safety of Canadian voters during a general election is a priority for Elections Canada,” Diane Benson said.

“Elections Canada is taking appropriate steps in line with government of Canada guidelines to provide Canadians with a safe and healthy voting environment.”

Benson wasn’t immediately able to say how much it will cost to stock each voting station with bottles of hand sanitizer.

The agency detailed its plans after the New Democrats asked Canada’s top election official if the country is prepared to go to the polls in the event of a swine flu outbreak.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP’s health critic, wrote to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand asking how ready Elections Canada is for a possible resurgence of the H1N1 flu virus this fall.

“As you are no doubt aware, experts expect a strong resurgence in H1N1 infections in the coming months, with high incidences in some communities, including remote aboriginal communities,” Wasylycia-Leis wrote.

“An election poses significant potential public health risks. Large public events, canvassing and other typical campaign activities, not to mention polling booths and long line-ups to vote on election day, all result in a great deal of contact between members of the public.”

She asked Mayrand what measures Elections Canada has to “safeguard public health and to ensure Canadians who contract the virus are not disenfranchised.”

“There’s such a possibility for a major outbreak . . . if it really does happen, should we even be in an election?” Wasylycia-Leis said in an interview.

Mayrand has not yet replied to Wasylycia-Leis’s letter. He was not immediately available to comment.

Some experts anticipate a second wave of the H1N1 virus to hit early this autumn, peaking in mid-October — a few weeks before Canada has a flu vaccine ready for distribution in early November, and smack in the middle of a possible election.

Swine flu could become an issue during the campaign if the virus becomes more virulent and Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is accused of mismanaging the outbreak and dragging its feet on a vaccine.

The attacks appear to have already begun. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff on Friday accused the Conservatives of leaving Canadians vulnerable to a possible H1N1 pandemic this fall. He brandished a newspaper article on a U.S. study that predicted an earlier-than-expected flu outbreak.

But political operatives are also making more practical plans for H1N1 on the hustings.

Senator David Smith, the Liberals’ campaign co-chairman, said the party’s election planners have held preliminary talks about what to do if another bout of swine flu hits during a campaign.

“Not specific plans, but we certainly have discussed it,” he said.

“The gist of it is, it’s kind of difficult to deal with hypothetical situations until you know the facts. What we’ve basically concluded was, ’well, if something along these lines happens, we’ll do exactly what the doctors say.”’

That includes stocking the Liberal buses and campaign plane with antiseptic wipes and hand sanitizer, Smith said.