OTTAWA -- Canada's chief public health officer downplayed the severity of the flu outbreak Thursday, despite Manitoba calling for more help on affected reserves.

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OTTAWA -- Canada's chief public health officer downplayed the severity of the flu outbreak Thursday, despite Manitoba calling for more help on affected reserves.

Dr. David Butler-Jones said despite the reports of serious illnesses, with more than a dozen First Nations people on ventilators in Manitoba and potentially hundreds of people sick on reserves in the Island Lake region in Manitoba, the H1N1 flu outbreak in Canada continues to be like a normal seasonal flu.

He said there is much interest in research to learn who is at greatest risk for severe illness but said there is no reason to believe the risk is higher among aboriginal peoples than any other groups in Canada.

"We may find that in the future but at the moment evidence is it doesn't matter who you are; everyone is susceptible," said Butler-Jones.

The World Health Organization formally notified health officials worldwide Thursday that it was raising the pandemic alert to its highest level -- the first such declaration since the 1968 Hong Kong flu.

Butler-Jones said it is not only aboriginal people who have come down with severe cases, and cautioned anyone from thinking this disease is affecting any one group more than others.

He said in total 138 people have been hospitalized out of about 3,000 confirmed cases of H1N1 flu in Canada. That means most people are recovering without serious illness or need of medical treatment, said Butler-Jones.

He said the number of severe cases among those with the flu in St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill or any other First Nation may prove to be the same percentage, though he acknowledged it's really not known yet.

Butler-Jones said in any influenza outbreak some communities are always hit harder than others.

"We've never been able to understand why that is," he said. "To make conclusions based on a couple of communities... it's way too early."

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said public-health experts are looking at what is happening on the reserves.

"There are reports of more severe illnesses in some parts of the country," she said. "This is a concern and we are investigating. We must resist speculation, rely on the science and report only on confirmed cases."

Both Aglukkaq and Butler-Jones said the WHO declaration addresses the number of cases found, not the severity of the illness, and said it shouldn't alarm anyone.

Nor does it change Canada's game plan, they said.

But the calls for the government to do more with First Nations came from all corners Thursday.

Liberal health critic Carolyn Bennett said what's happened on the reserves in Manitoba is "terrible and inexcusable."

She said clearly there was a breakdown in the country's pandemic flu response when hundreds of people were sick, and nobody was tested "until two pregnant women were on a respirator."

"This is appalling," she said.

Bennett said Health Canada should help Manitoba with some of the $80 million set aside for pandemic response, and said an immediate assessment of the pandemic plan is needed.

Butler-Jones said the cold spring has allowed the flu to linger longer than usual but said he expects it to return in the fall. A vaccine is still in development.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

-- With files from The Canadian Press