With flu season bearing down on us, hype about the influenza A (H1N1) virus, the so-called swine flu, is building back up, though thankfully not at the levels we saw last spring when news of the virus first broke.
And now that there’s a vaccine available – Waterloo Region residents will be among the first to receive it – some of the hysteria should be dampened. It will be interesting, however, to see how the public responds to the immunization program: will we stampede en masse to be inoculated, or be more blasé given the few cases?
While there has been a renewed outbreak in parts of Canada, H1N1 hasn’t seen the kind of numbers feared when news of the virus first began to circulate. That’s not to say there have been no consequences: N1H1 is blamed for 4,700 deaths worldwide, including 83 in this country. However, common flu varieties routinely claim more lives.
Nine thousand cases of seasonal flu occur every year on average in Ontario. Approximately 300 people die, either directly from the flu or from the virus complicating existing chronic conditions. That represents a population-based mortality rate of 3.3 per 100,000. The mortality rate due to the H1N1 stands at 0.18 deaths per 100,000 people.
That said, fear of what could happen has driven federal and provincial health officials to roll out the country’s largest immunization drive. Initially, the focus will be on those most at risk: pregnant women, adults with chronic conditions and people living in remote places. Whereas common flus usually pose larger risks to the elderly and the very young, H1N1 does appear to have a larger impact on people in the middle range. Still, officials are asking us to let the most vulnerable be the first in line for the newly approved vaccine, stressing there will be enough to go around to those who wait.
There is, health officials maintain, no need to panic. But we are being told to take precautions, beginning with frequent hand-washing. We’re not shaking hands as often, and some people are a little more leery of large gatherings. The social impacts are understandable, but don’t necessarily fit the scale of the outbreak, which has been relatively mild. If you think you’ve got the flu, or are experiencing flu symptoms, it’s certainly advisable to stay out of circulation, but there’s no call for preemptive hibernation just yet.
The World Health Organization, which is tracking the virus worldwide, says the H1N1 flu remains a moderate threat. Most people who contract it experience only mild symptoms, with the illness passing within a week, much like any other flu.
Given that information, and the fast-tracking of a vaccine, we should probably be well equipped to handle this year’s flu season. Perhaps more difficult to tackle will be the fallout in the pork industry that came with the label “swine flu.” The pandemic scare has taken a toll on an industry already facing tough times.
It seems ridiculous that people would stop buying pork and pork products simply at the mention of swine flu. It’s no wonder organizations such as the Canadian Pork Council and Ontario Pork are eager to put a new label on the virus. The swine reference is something of a misnomer, as the virus contains genetic components of human, avian and swine origin.
When news of H1N1 virus hit last April, emerging from Mexico, the impact on that country’s tourism industry was immediate. Here, farmers took the hit. Maybe after getting the flu shot, you could follow that up with a trip down the deli aisle.