As the World Health Organization vacillated over whether to call the flu outbreak a full-blown pandemic yesterday, Manitoba shifted to a disaster footing, warning people away from hospitals, closing some northern schools and placing more flu victims in intensive care.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority posted flyers throughout city hospitals asking the public to limit hospital visits and urging people with flu symptoms to stay away altogether.
Nurses and physicians within those hospitals are straining to contain a surge in severe cases of the flu that appears to be unique in the country. Yesterday, two more flu sufferers were placed in intensive care, bringing to 27 the total number of people on respirators due to flu symptoms.
The WHO is considering bumping up its pandemic alert from 5 to 6, which would indicate a global pandemic is under way. Under stage 6, the highest alert level, drug-makers would have to fast-track production of a swine flu vaccine, currently scheduled to roll out in December.
In Manitoba, a disproportionate number of those on respirators are aboriginal. Several remote first nations communities have closed schools, placed limits on unnecessary travel and begun intense sanitization programs.
"We're trying as best we can to stop this thing," said David Harper, Chief of the Garden Hill First Nation, where a second person was confirmed with swine flu yesterday and dozens more are showing symptoms. "We're sanitizing our public vehicles and many of our public places twice a day."
Chief Harper says the real problem lies in his community's homes. With upwards of 10 people living in cramped quarters, residences offer ideal vectors for disease. When large-scale outbreaks inevitably arise, small rural nursing stations cannot keep up.
"Most would consider their health centres as first-aid centres, at best," said Donovan Fontaine, acting chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
The first swine flu victim in Garden Hill, 18-month-old Peter Flett, had been prescribed Tylenol and cold baths for several days before nursing staff finally decided to medevac him 500 kilometres to Winnipeg.
"They lost a lot of time there," said his mother, Christina Flett, her recovering son at her side playing with a toy truck. "We are lucky it didn't come out worse."
In the House of Commons, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq rejected opposition accusations that the government has failed to protect first nations.
"Since April of this year we have been acting on our pandemic plan, which includes first nations communities," she said.
With a report from The Canadian Press