Whenever David Butler-Jones heads out to work as Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, he always sports one of his favourite accessories - a Mickey Mouse watch.
"I have Mickey and Goofy watches because I always figure it's nice to have something that doesn't quite fit," Dr. Butler-Jones said Tuesday, adding that one Goofy watch turns backwards.
"I just like the idea that I can be very formal, I can be whatever I am, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, but I still can appreciate Goofy."
In his leather coats and oddball watches, Dr. Butler-Jones has become the public face of the federal government's effort to fight the H1N1 virus, patiently explaining the massive effort and why it is taking so long. Many Canadians facing long waits for shots might have a hard time picturing Canada's top doctor using a Goofy watch to tell time, but Dr. Butler-Jones said it's just who he is.
The Globe on H1N1
"I'm just not that kind of guy to be coiffed with nice suits. There's always got to be something that's just not quite right," he said. The leather jackets were the idea of his ex-wife, Susan. She "bought me a leather jacket one year, and I found them really comfortable [and]they travel well, you can bunch them up."
On Tuesday, as he sipped a latte on a Starbucks patio in Vancouver, Dr. Butler-Jones maintained an air of calm amid a storm of complaints about the government's handling of the H1N1 crisis.
Yes, there have been frustration and delays, he said, but over all, the plan has gone remarkably well. "This is the largest immunization campaign in history," he explained. "Some [provincial]jurisdictions have already immunized more people in a week and a bit than they normally do in a whole flu season ... It's frustrating for people, but it's also a remarkable accomplishment."
As for politicians who have slammed the program, Dr. Butler-Jones said Canada's pandemic response program has been in the works for years, and "they should be crowing about it not criticizing it, actually."
He acknowledged that he and other health officials were caught off guard by the public response to the vaccine.
"To some extent, you can predict that if you have a really good sale at Future Shop, there's going to be along lineup, or if there are tickets for Duran Duran, you're going to have a long lineup," he said.
"We really, quite honestly, weren't expecting quite the lineups for vaccines. ... Maybe we should have, but given all the signs before that, it looked like our biggest challenge would be convincing people to get out and get the vaccine."
When asked if he had any second thoughts about the program so far, Dr. Butler-Jones offered some critiques.
He questioned the way some health regions have doled out shots, failing to vaccinate those most at risk first, as his office recommended. He expressed some frustration at the inability of GlaxoSmithKline Inc. to produce as much vaccine as promised last week because of a production glitch. And he suggested the government may have to consider other vaccine suppliers in future, instead of only GlaxoSmithKline.
But Dr. Butler-Jones refused to assign blame. Delays were inevitable, he said, given the complexities of the production process, and everything will be back to normal in a week or so. "It's not like bottling a bit more Pepsi cola," he said. "It's kind of like, if you think of supply chains in the war, you are constantly trying to adjust and sometimes one of the ships gets blown up or whatever and you are short for that week."
He is worried about the growing public anxiety. "Nobody should be afraid that there won't be enough vaccine. And, those that are at low risk can wait, because the risk from this flu, for most of us at low risk, is no greater than the flu that we take for granted every year."
Dr. Butler-Jones, 55, never expected to become Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, his initial plan was to go into mission work.
Born in Toronto, Dr. Butler-Jones studied at the University of Toronto, earning a medical degree and a postgraduate degree in community health. A long-time youth worker for the United Church of Canada, he planned to go to Africa to work in a church-run mission, but was asked to go to Newfoundland instead for a community medical project in Baie Verte.
"I found out that my first job was to get some funding for my position. So it didn't last long," he said.
He went on to serve as a medical officer of health in a variety of communities in Ontario and Saskatchewan before becoming the latter province's chief medical health officer in 2002. He also worked on several international programs, and he teaches at the University of Manitoba and University of Saskatchewan.
In 2004, then-prime-minister Paul Martin named him Canada's first Chief Public Health Officer. While the job has taxed his personal life - his marriage ended nearly two years ago and he is rarely at his home in Winnipeg - the work has been gratifying. "I'm not sure what else I would do that could be quite as interesting and as challenging and have the opportunity to actually make a difference."
He recently received a two-year extension to his job. When asked if he would stay beyond 2011, he paused and then replied: "Probably. We'll take one year at a time at the moment."