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Health minister assures pandemic planning is done as H1N1 hits B.C.

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VANCOUVER, B.C. - The "second wave" of the H1N1 pandemic is getting underway in Canada, with British Columbia reporting eight deaths as health officials grapple with a flu outbreak that is unprecedented for the province this time of year.

Federal health officials assured the public Friday that pandemic preparations are in place, even as they warned that other provinces should expect to see an increase in the number of H1N1 cases themselves.

Ontario has already reported a spike in flu-like activity, while reports of the deaths of 11 children in the U.S. in the past week sparked fears the long-feared resurgence of the pandemic strain of the virus is underway.

"British Columbia is now well into what we might call the second wave of the H1N1 pandemic," Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said at a news conference at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control Friday.

"Compared to the rest of the country we are seeing significantly higher numbers of influenza-like illness at this time. Our rates of prescribing of antivirals have gone up to about 5,000 a week."

Kendall said that while the flu rate in the province is unprecedented for this time of year, it is not unprecedented for a flu season. Seventy-eight flu patients have been hospitalized so far this fall.

Kendall said it's not unusual for influenza to affect one area, and leave others relatively unaffected - at least for now.

"Somebody has to be first," he said.

Kendall, who was joined at the news conference by federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and national public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones, said the B.C. disease control laboratory is testing about 700 samples every day. About half are testing positive for influenza and most of those are the H1N1 strain.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says there have been 80 H1N1-associated deaths recorded in the country to date.

But Aglukkaq said while Canadians should do their best to remain informed of H1N1, they can rest assured that the proper preparations have been made at the federal level.

"We have stockpiled antiviral medications in strategic locations throughout the country so that they can be distributed quickly, even to isolated communities if they are needed," she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced Friday some swine flu vaccines may be delayed because manufacturers can't produce them as quickly as hoped, but Aglukkaq and Butler-Jones were adamant all Canadians looking for H1N1 vaccinations will get them.

"We in Canada are on track to get the vaccine out the first week of November and we will continue to work to meet that timeline as agreed to with provinces and territories," Aglukkaq said.

"There's a lot of speculation on when it will be available, when it will not, but in terms of getting the vaccine out, the target timeline has been early November for the last three or four months for both (adjuvanted and unadjuvanted vaccines)."

The pandemic vaccine purchased for most Canadians will contain an adjuvant, an additive that boosts the impact of a vaccine which allows a smaller dose to be used for each person.

While health officials say adjuvanted vaccines are just as safe as the unadjuvanted type, there is no safety data for their use in pregnant women and little data on the safety of the additives in vaccines given to children.

There are different opinions on how pregnant women should proceed.

Butler-Jones said while it's not known which of the two vaccines will be available first, pregnant women should take whatever vaccine is available to protect themselves and their babies if they think they could become infected with the H1N1 virus.

But Ontario's chief medical officer of health has said pregnant women should wait to take the unadjuvanted vaccine, which won't be available until the week of Nov. 7.

The Public Health Agency of Canada's assistant deputy minister, Dr. Danielle Grondin, said pregnant women have a higher risk of getting a severe form of the virus, which can lead to death.

"So that means that the risk to be not immunized is far, far higher," she said Friday.

Aglukkaq stressed the vaccine will not be released until it has been thoroughly tested.

The health minister went on to say officials have observed a slight increase in influenza activity throughout Canada of late.

"Although it is not yet significant enough to constitute the beginning of the second wave, we do expect to see an increase in cases as the fall advances," she said, urging Canadians to stay informed on the largest vaccination campaign in the country's history.

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