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Vaccination campaign under fire

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OTTAWA -- The Public Health Agency of Canada has made a "mess" of the H1N1 vaccination campaign and proceeding with it should be up for debate because its benefits are quickly evaporating, according to one of the country's most vocal chief medical officers.

Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario's former chief medical officer and a top health officer in the province, said Friday it might simply be too late for a mass vaccination program to work. In an interview with Canwest News Service and Global National, he said that for immunization to be truly effective in preventing a disease, it has to be done before the disease hits.

"As it happened in Canada this year with H1N1 the vaccine didn't come until the outbreak had already started and even now is only coming in relatively small quantities. So an opportunity to really have an impact on the disease, to immunize before the outbreak, is gone," he said.

"In eastern Ontario where I live and work the outbreak is effectively over. If we're immunizing people now essentially you're barring the barn door after the horse is well out the farm gate."

Schabas said outbreaks of the swine flu in populous parts of the country, including southwestern Ontario and British Columbia, are on the wane.

"I seriously question the continued focus on mass immunization, at least in those areas," he said.

Schabas' views are contrary to those of many of his colleagues -- including Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. David Butler-Jones, who says the virus is picking up speed and that immunization will not come too late to slow down the pandemic. Vaccination clinics across the country began on Oct. 26 for groups identified as high-risk and it likely will be a few weeks still before the doors are open for all Canadians.

The lead government department on the pandemic response -- the Public Health Agency of Canada, headed by Butler-Jones -- should have taken a step back and re-thought its plans for mass immunization, said Schabas.

"If the ground is shifting under our feet, if the disease is happening sooner than we expected and we can't immunize 25 or 30 million Canadians in an efficient manner before the outbreak, let's ask the question very seriously: Is it worth continuing with this? Because I think increasingly the answer is no," said Schabas.

The hype and hysteria around the H1N1 pandemic, the millions of dollars spent so far on responding to it, and the dire warnings about it are all unwarranted, according to Schabas -- who even questions the pandemic label.

He spreads the blame among public health officials, governments and the media. The World Health Organization is jokingly referred to as the World Hysteria Organization, he said, and it set a tone in the spring with its messaging that was adopted around the globe.

"They've just been (champing) at the bit waiting for a pandemic for the last 10 years and I think they dramatically overreacted," said Schabas.

The Public Health Agency of Canada at first refrained from following WHO's lead and was moderate in its communications, but more recently changed its tone and became more alarmist and focused on promoting the H1N1 shot, he said. Now there isn't enough vaccine to offer to the general public and there won't be until the outbreak is essentially over, he said.

In a news briefing Friday, Butler-Jones countered by saying "complacency is not warranted."

"Even when we reach the peak, whenever that might come, we still have the other side of the hill to come down, which means millions more potentially infected," said Butler-Jones.


-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 14, 2009 A8

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