Aside from the legitimate health concerns associated with the latest flu strain, H1N1 has become a touchstone for discussion on a number of fronts: politics, science, animal husbandry, economics — and preventive health measures.
For the average family or workplace, the critical discussion should centre around how we protect ourselves from H1N1, or the seemingly inevitable future virulent influenza strain that will bring with it death and social derailment.
At this point, all the markers suggest that H1N1 is not the next devastating pandemic. But it is the messenger we should all heed.
There is nothing unusual about the flu in a normal year, but it still represents a costly and life-altering health threat. One in four Canadians get influenza each year, and as many as 8,000 Canadians die from complications associated with the virus. The victims who suffer the most are the aged, the very young and the ill.
Health officials say H1N1 lacks the genes that turn influenza into a mass killer. The last pandemic strain, in 1918, killed 40 to 50 million people worldwide and struck mostly healthy young adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, we should consider H1N1 a warning that it is time for each of us to conduct a sort of Pandemic Planning 101, a crash course on protecting you and your family from the dangers of a deadly influenza strain.
Health officials are almost unanimous in their belief that a worldwide pandemic will strike within 10 years, and maybe much sooner. When that happens, we all need to be ready.
For several years, Alberta health officials have been improving access to flu shots. Those eligible for free shots include those with chronic conditions and anyone over 50. The shots tend to be a strain behind the most imminent threat, but they do represent a legitimate safeguard against some viruses.
Medical researchers have also developed antivirals that are effective (they are available in prescriptions only), but their use must be limited or they will lose their effectiveness.
Dr. Martin Lavoie, medical officer of health for the Central Alberta region, has said that there can be no vaccine against a virus until a pandemic breaks out. And then it would take a number of weeks for researchers to develop a vaccine, giving the virus plenty of time to spread and to mutate further.
In short, waiting for science to save us would be foolhardy, if not fatal.
Into this gap come the profiteers, touting health products designed to combat the flu and offering generic versions of antivirals. Health Canada is warning of false claims by those offering flu cures.
More worthy of attention are the efforts of public health officials like Lavoie, school officials, government and social networks that have been working diligently on pandemic plans. These planning scenarios should be adopted by industry as well as they prepare to confront a dramatically reduced workforce after a pandemic strikes.
In some cases, the planning involves stockpiling basic supplies and formulating strategies to isolate ill students and workers. In other cases, the plans involve ensuring medical information is readily available online or via phone (the Alberta Health Link number is 1-866-408-5465). For some, planning involves restructuring work benefits for extended sick leave.
On a basic level, some companies and institutions have improved and increased access to hand-cleansing products and are offering employees better information on how viruses spread.
These strategies can all be boiled down to personal preparations. Government websites offer simple tips to prepare for the inevitable isolation that a pandemic will bring, and organizations like the Red Cross are offering workshops on preparing for a pandemic (phone 403-346-1241 in Red Deer).
Most of the preparations are about common sense and care. But we need to take the threat seriously, and there is no better time to get ready than right now, regardless of the ultimate virulence of H1N1.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.