Bird Flu Alarm

2006-03-10-Quebec gears for the worst

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-03-10-Quebec gears for the worst

Preparing for the worst, Quebec unveiled its battle plan yesterday against an anticipated influenza pandemic that covers everything from mass vaccinations and restrictions on public assemblies to plant closings and voluntary home quarantines.

Admitting public-health officials cannot predict when, where or how the flu would strike, Health Minister Philippe Couillard outlined a plan to deal with a worst-case scenario that he said could see as many as 2.6 million Quebecers infected.

In the event of a pandemic, the province would be thrown into crisis mode, similar to what happened during the 1998 ice storm, when all levels of government and public services were called upon to work together.

"Let's be clear: It would be a very, very difficult time for Quebec not only on the health level but at the economic and social level, too," Couillard said at a news conference.

"It would have been irresponsible to present a sugar-coated portrayal of the situation. We have to show the health system is getting ready.

"I hope this will never happen. I hope this plan remains on the shelf."

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has emerged and, in rare cases in Asia, humans have been infected by contact with sick birds. There have been 94 deaths in seven Asian countries.

Humans do not have any form of immunity to the virus.

If the influenza virus spreads from human to human - something that has not yet occurred - one in three Quebecers could be infected by successive waves of the flu, the first lasting eight to 10 weeks, the report says

That means 2.6 million Quebecers - including 80,000 crucial health-care workers - would be infected, off work or out of school. Of that total, 34,000 could need hospitalization.

Worse, Quebec estimates 8,500 would die, a far cry from the millions who perished worldwide in such historic pandemics as the Spanish flu of 1918 but still many more than the 1,000 to 1,500 who die annually in Quebec of the regular flu.

If the flu pandemic strikes, Quebec plans to enlist the help of up to 20,000 volunteers - new graduates, students and retired health workers. The relief team is already being assembled.

Couillard said the government can count on only a few weeks of lead time before the virus arrives and then the scramble would be on to develop a vaccine and administer it. Front-line health-care workers would be the first ones to receive it.

Even then, it could take four to six months before a vaccine could be developed and still more time to get it to the sick.

There is no vaccine available, and it cannot be produced until the virus has been identified.

The province has, however, stockpiled 11 million doses of the anti-viral Tamiflu, which is used to treat the symptoms of conventional flu. That's enough to treat up to 800,000 people who fall sick.

The rest of the Couillard plan specifies that non-traditional sites like schools and military facilities would be equipped to deliver health services. The SARS outbreak in Toronto taught health specialists the dangers of trying to treat everyone in hospitals.

Understanding Avian Influenza