H1N1 vaccine to hit after spike

Trials for the H1N1 flu vaccine that will be distributed to Canadians are beginning in the next two weeks, as researchers continue to assess the threat level the pandemic presents.

With a full vaccination program already underway in Australia, and with the U.S. set to begin in early October, new questions are being raised regarding Canada’s ability to cope with the possibility of a serious outbreak.

“The problem is making predictions based on incomplete evidence,” said adjunct professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at the U of C Dr. Douglas Storey. “Protections [from the disease] don’t become visible until one month after [vaccinations] being delivered, so there is always guessing involved.”

But the advantage of the later start, said Storey, is that the effects of government programs in other countries can be weighed in order to decide the best course of action.

For now, the concern with swine flu has been its impact on those between 20- and 40-years-old, which is different than the typical demographic of the very young and the very old most flu strains seriously affect.

The federal government hasn’t released its action plan to deal with a serious outbreak, although doctors both federally and provincially have been working out the details of a strategy should conditions worsen.

The deputy medical officer of health for the Alberta Health Region, Dr. Judy MacDonald, said that so long as conditions don’t get worse, the goal is still public education to limit the reach of this form of the flu.

“[Students should] check the Alberta Health Services’ website for updates, as well as the University of Calgary web page.”

The best defense, she noted, is still to “wash your hands often, cover your face when you sneeze and if you’re sick, stay home.”

As new information becomes available, the Alberta Health Region will adjust its strategy, although Health Canada makes the overall plan — including deciding vaccine delivery and determining those most in need.

The southern hemisphere has already gone through its flu season, so researchers on the other side of the equator — with influenza season approaching — are keen to see how the outbreak will play out in Canada. Both doctors suggested a balance is crucial, where the vaccine is delivered at the right time to ensure its effectiveness and is delivered to everyone who needs it.

“Caution is not a bad thing,” said Storey. “There is always the danger of recombination, which increases the spread and virulence of any disease.”

MacDonald expressed a similar concern.

“The flu is always a serious disease; it is necessary to treat it with respect,” she said.

But she also suggested that while the strain was alarming in the beginning, it may not be as severe as first thought.

It is too early to tell and the best action, warned MacDonald, is to follow the basic precautions one should take with any virus.

For now, policy makers and health workers alike are in a wait-and-see situation. The Canadian trials will set the stage for determining exactly when a swine flu vaccine will be available to the Canadian public. Those results will also indicate who needs the vaccine and by when.

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