As the World Health Organization declared H1N1 influenza a full-blown pandemic Thursday, the province's top public-health official said he expects at least half of Manitobans will be infected with swine flu before the virus runs its course.

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As the World Health Organization declared H1N1 influenza a full-blown pandemic Thursday, the province's top public-health official said he expects at least half of Manitobans will be infected with swine flu before the virus runs its course.

"I suspect by the time this virus has worked its way through Manitoba as many as half, if not more, Manitobans will have been infected," said Dr. Joel Kettner, the province's chief provincial public health officer, while confirming another 22 cases of the flu Thursday. In total, there have been 78 confirmed H1N1 cases in Manitoba, but Kettner said the actual number infected could be higher, since not everyone gets tested.

Kettner stressed his prediction won't mean that more than 500,000 Manitobans are about to be hospitalized or even diagnosed with H1N1.

But he wanted to make clear more and more people will come into contact with the spreading flu, adding there appear to be underlying health conditions that contribute to whether someone becomes severely sick.

Kettner added the province won't change its approach to fighting the virus in light of the WHO's decision.

"Our plans and the implementation of our plans are specific to what the situation is in Manitoba, for Manitobans and what we anticipate that situation to be in the future," he said.

While Kettner said all Manitobans are at risk of infection, he said a disproportionate number of First Nations appear to be infected with a severe form of the flu. Out of 24 Manitobans who are in intensive care for severe flu-like symptoms, two-thirds are aboriginal, Kettner said.

Nine cases of swine flu have been confirmed in St. Theresa Point First Nation, said Chief David McDougall, including five new cases on Thursday. The neighbouring community of Garden Hill First Nation has at least two confirmed cases of the virus.

The province has sent antivirals, surgical masks and respirators to the First Nations and Inuit Health branch of Health Canada, and arranged for doctors to be flown to both St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill, said Terry Goertzen, Manitoba Health's assistant deputy minister.

Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald met Thursday with leaders representing Manitoba's health-care professionals to stress the need for more primary care workers in northern First Nations communities as the swine flu outbreak continues.

"We have called for help, and we're going to be there to assist Manitobans who need the most help right now," Oswald said. "Our aboriginal people have health status that is quite disparate from non-aboriginal people, that is a fact. And in such a situation, as they would in any situation of illness, (First Nations) are more compromised and we are seeing that to be true."

Oswald said the initial response to her appeal has been positive, and now the logistics must be worked out.

"If every health-care professional in Manitoba were to do even one shift in a remote northern community, we would have the best primary care of any jurisdiction in Canada." But Oswald added Manitobans need to remember that everyone is at risk of being infected.

"Dr. Kettner has been saying for weeks now that H1N1 is here, and we all need to heed the precautions that our public health officials tell us to heed. This illness is not about stigmatizing First Nations people, it is everywhere in Manitoba."

Kettner said of those Manitobans on ventilators, almost half are diabetic and more than 40 per cent are smokers, while close to one-fifth have a history of substance abuse.

About a quarter of those in intensive care have pre-existing lung conditions, and a quarter are overweight or obese.

"I think it's important for the public to understand who's at more risk for severe disease -- which of course needs to be distinguished from who is at risk for getting infected, which is pretty much everybody," he said.

arielle.godbout@freepress.mb.ca

POLITICIANS REACT

TO H1N1 ON FIRST NATIONS

 

Gary Doer Manitoba premier

 

"We need a full co-operative effort. In terms of First Nations, we obviously have to deal with the symptoms of overcrowding, we have to deal with the symptoms of a lack of medical services directly in the community. That's longer term. In the medium term and in the short term we have to absolutely... try to get as many services into the communities as possible."

 

Carolyn Bennett federal Liberal health critic

 

"A month ago we thought it was working pretty well, when it was upper-middle-class tourists who had been to Mexico and their friends. But the minister of health and her provincial counterparts, and (Chief Public Health Officer) David Butler-Jones need to admit (the outbreak on the reserves) was a bad outcome. They need to transfer some money to Manitoba (from the $80 million) that is set aside exactly for these situations."

 

Jon Gerrard provincial Liberal leader

 

"Clearly, the federal government should've been funding more in this area and made sure things worked. But when it comes to have a pandemic plan for the province, the province has got to make sure that every municipality and every First Nation has got it. And the province has to go and spend some money to make sure something gets done and send the bill to the federal government. They've got to do something urgent on this."

 

Judy Wasylycia-Leis

federal NDP health critic

 

There is an outbreak on the reserve and they are studying the issue of hand sanitizers? It's absolutely bizarre."

 

 

 

 

Hugh McFadyen

provincial Conservative leader

 

"I think there's a long history of impoverishment in our country and First Nations community of unacceptable housing conditions... There has been a responsibility for generations to not allow the level of poverty and housing situation to get where it is."

 

 

Leona Aglukkaq federal minister of health

 

"We've sent additional personnel and equipment to many of these communities. We are in the process of obtaining more supplies to meet the needs of health-care workers. As part of our H1N1 campaign we've sent public-health notices to band council offices, chiefs, hamlet offices, co-op stores, northern stores, and to over 1,400 aboriginal health organizations... We are helping all First Nations to develop tests and as necessary assess their pandemic plans. This is part of our comprehensive and co-ordinated response."

 

Theresa Oswald

provincial minister of health

 

"(In Manitoba) I think we need to move as quickly as we can. I stand with the federal minister of health who says this is not a time to blame political parties; it's a time to stand united. It's a time to work together for the health and safety of all Canadians. I stand with her. I said it on the first day and I'll say it again today."