TORONTO — Canadians should avoid becoming complacent about the H1N1 flu virus, which is unpredictable and could stage a big comeback in the new year, says Canada’s chief public health officer.
In the final federal briefing of the year on the pandemic virus on Tuesday, Dr. David-Butler Jones said a third wave of swine flu could easily sweep across Canada in the coming months.
“As we approach the end of 2009, it’s tempting to think that perhaps given the numbers, the pandemic’s done. This is wishful thinking that can lead to complacency,” the head of the Public Health Agency said from Ottawa. “I want to counter the complacency by emphasizing once again that the spread of H1N1 is not over and it can come back.”
“It’s still in the world. We’re not done yet.”
Still, the rate of new infections seems to be dropping, based on hospitalizations, with declines being reported in all provinces and territories.
During the week ending Dec. 5, 307 people were admitted to hospital, compared to 804 the previous week; there were 83 ICU admissions versus 139 a week earlier; and 33 people died, compared to 56 the week before.
The latest figures available show that 8,102 Canadians have been hospitalized because of complications related to swine flu, including 1,332 who were admitted to intensive care units and 593 who required ventilators to assist breathing. The virus has caused 390 deaths in Canada since first emerging in late April.
Butler-Jones said that although the rate of new cases appears to be falling, the 60 per cent of Canadians who have not yet been immunized should roll up their sleeves for a shot to protect themselves against the virus.
“During the holiday period, when Canadians are gathering with families and friends, these are ideal settings for the transmission of H1 and other infections,” he said, stressing that young children, those with underlying medical conditions and pregnant women are at high risk of complications.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said that overall, 40 per cent of Canadians have bared their arms for the H1N1 flu shots, but more than enough doses of the vaccine are available to protect every citizen who wants to be inoculated.
“As we approach the holiday period, I want to remind Canadians that the H1N1 vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones,” Aglukkaq told the media briefing.
Vaccination rates vary across the country and even within provinces, conceded Butler-Jones. In Newfoundland and Labrador, for instance, overall uptake of the vaccine has been in the high 60s percentage-wise, with rates for children running at 85 to 90 per cent.
“These are phenomenal numbers, not like anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “But there’s still room for improvement.”
Canada ordered 50.4 million doses of H1N1 vaccine from manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline. So far, about 24 million doses have been delivered to the provinces and territories, but the federal government still isn’t saying what it plans to do with the excess.
Many developed countries have pledged vaccine to the World Health Organization for distribution to developing nations, but Canada hasn’t yet made a similar commitment.
Aglukkaq said a decision will be made “early in the new year” after consultations with the provinces and territories.
“There are a number of options we are looking at,” said Butler-Jones. “No decisions have been made.”