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Get ready to roll up your sleeves, Canada

Minister wants every Canadian vaccinated

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Canada is producing more than enough vaccine to immunize the entire population for H1N1, but federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's biggest concern is whether Canadians will take advantage of it.

During an appearance at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg Wednesday and in an interview with the Free Press, Aglukkaq exhorted Canadians to get their flu shots when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available beginning in the first week of November.

"At the end of the day, it is an individual choice," she said. "(But) if you don't want H1N1, get the vaccine."

Ottawa plans to run ads in the next several weeks encouraging Canadians to become immunized, a federal official said Wednesday.

"I guess my biggest concern would be that, you know, we've produced the vaccine, clinical trials take place and then not get the response and then have to deal with the aftermath of that," Aglukkaq said.

"It's really important to get the facts out to ensure Canadians are aware that the medical experts are saying that it's safe and encourage them to go."

Reports suggesting that even a significant portion of Canada's medical personnel don't intend to be vaccinated for the pandemic flu concern Canada's chief public health officer.

"Doctors and nurses are not immortal, as much as we might think we are," Dr. David Butler-Jones said. "And, unfortunately, if we're not immunized, and we have influenza, we'll take it into the nursing home and hospital and potentially we'll kill our patients."

"There's an old edict in medicine which is: first, do no harm," Butler-Jones said. "So being immunized is really key. And immunization is the safest, most effective, most cost-effective measure in modern medicine."

Officials are still testing samples of the vaccine to ensure it is safe and effective, but no problems are anticipated.

"My goal is to have 100 per cent of Canadians (vaccinated)," the federal minister told reporters at the lab. "We're very fortunate as Canadians to be able to have that choice."

Since Sept. 1, Manitoba has only had three confirmed new cases of H1N1, a provincial spokeswoman said, but there have been larger outbreaks in British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The actual number of cases is likely much higher, since people with flu symptoms are only tested if they become seriously ill.

Butler-Jones said Wednesday that given the H1N1 virus is showing up a little earlier than normal seasonal influenza, it could peak earlier as well, perhaps in December and January.

"When it will start to take off more generally in the population is hard to say, but we're hoping to be ahead of that," he said.

Canada's goal is to have most H1N1 vaccination wrapped up before Christmas, when the disease has the potential to spread rapidly because of Canadians travelling and gathering socially.

While in the city Wednesday, Aglukkaq announced $2.4 million in federal funding for five Canadian H1N1 research projects, including one headed by scientists at the University of Manitoba. Satyendra Sharma and his U of M colleagues will try to determine why some patients with H1N1 go on to develop serious respiratory illness.

Seasonal influenza kills about 4,000 Canadians a year. But with an unprecedented immunization program and co-operation between federal and provincial health officials, Butler-Jones said the country could have far more success fighting H1N1.

"We actually have an opportunity to have fewer deaths from the pandemic of influenza than from annual flu, which nobody has ever been able to do before," he said.

He said his goal is for people to wonder, afterwards, what all the fuss was about -- much like they did when the Y2K computer bug turned out not to be a fiasco.

"I'm looking forward to the criticism that we made too much of it because we were successful."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2009 A7

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