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Nurse Laura Gill administers a dose of the H1N1 vaccine in Ottawa in this Nov. 2, 2009 photo. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Nurse Laura Gill administers a dose of the H1N1 vaccine in Ottawa in this Nov. 2, 2009 photo. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

H1N1 is over, but the next pandemic awaits Add to ...

The World Health Organization is expected to declare the H1N1 influenza pandemic officially over in the next week.

That means it will be downgraded to a typical seasonal flu - not a global killer. As the end approaches, many may wonder whether public health experts were crying wolf over H1N1.

In fact, Ottawa behaved responsibly in introducing a $2-billion universal vaccine program - even if it was hobbled by logistical problems, a confusing communications strategy, and a tardy roll-out.

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Globally, H1N1 killed 18,000 people, including 428 in Canada. Some of its victims were healthy, young adults. While the virus was not as deadly as feared, there was no way of knowing that in advance.

"If H1N1 had been really serious and we treated it as a mild flu bug, critics would have blamed us for being cavalier," says Dr. Perry Kendall, British Columbia's provincial health officer. "You have to plan for a really bad scenario, and then modify plans in response to less serious scenarios."

Although only about 40 per cent of Canada's population received the H1N1 vaccine, below the government's target of 70 per cent, the initiative still saved many lives. In Ontario, the vaccine averted nearly one million cases of H1N1, and as many as 50 deaths, according to a study published in the July issue of the journal Vaccine.

The response to the H1N1 outbreak was also a good test run for Canada's pandemic preparedness. And there will be another pandemic.

Public health officials fear that avian flu, a virus that normally infect only birds and pigs, could be it. This contagious disease is species-specific, but has, on rare occasions, crossed the species barrier. More than half of humans infected with the virus have died.

Officially, a pandemic begins when three conditions are met: a new influenza virus subtype emerges; it infects humans, causing serious illness; and it spreads easily among humans. Avian flu already meets the first two conditions, according to the WHO. With each new human case, the virus improves its ability to transmit in humans. "While neither the timing nor the severity of the next pandemic can be predicted, the probability that a pandemic will occur has increased," warns the WHO.

As the H1N1 pandemic ends, Canadians cannot afford to be complacent about the proven value of flu vaccines - or about the probability of the next pandemic.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this editorial and an earlier online version incorrectly cited the source of the statistic that the vaccine averted nearly one million cases of H1N1, and as many as 50 deaths in Ontario. This online version has been corrected.

 

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