Old news sparks new views

January 12, 2010 by  

Roy Wadia Director of Communications for the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control is confident Canada will be able to deal with the outbreak of H1N1, as it has with previous infections.  (STOCK PHOTO/BCCDC)

Roy Wadia Director of Communications for the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control is confident Canada will be able to deal with the outbreak of H1N1, as it has with previous infections. (STOCK PHOTO/BCCDC)

Avian flu and the West Nile virus may have dropped off the media radar with all the attention on H1N1, but they have not dropped off the map.

“Because [avian flu is] not spread effectively between bird and human, it’s not a huge concern for most people,” said Roy Wadia, director of communications for the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. “If it were to become of pandemic size, it could cause a catastrophic pandemic on a scale that would epically dwarf the current H1N1 pandemic.”

“Everything is ultimately local,” said Wadia. “If it’s happening in your neck of the woods, it’s a big story,” said Wadia. “If it’s happening in another country thousands of miles away, or even two or three countries away from you, it’s not a concern.”

Wadia, who was working in China during the original outbreak of avian flu in 2003, recalled that although it was a big concern in that area, it was of minimal concern in the West.It was not until the virus resurfaced in 2008 on Western farms and began having a direct affect on farmers and citizens that it received widespread attention. Since then, media focus has shifted again, but Wadia still sees avian flu as a huge public-health issue.

According the World Health Organization, there have been 442 documented cases of avian flu infection among people, with 262 of those cases proving fatal. Direct contact with diseased birds is believed to be the cause of most of these infections, and transfer from human to human has been rare. However, the potential for the disease to mutate or evolve and become more efficient in transferring is the largest concern for public-health officials.

West Nile virus is another infection endemic to various parts of the world. The virus first appeared in North America in 1999, but how it came to New York remains a mystery. Until then, the virus was found in Africa, Eastern Europe, parts of the Northern Mediterranean, Egypt, Israel, Romania and the Czech Republic. Upon its arrival in North America, it became the most widely spread vector-borne disease (spread by the bite of an insect or animal) on the continent, according to the BCCDC. To date, seven Canadians have reportedly contract the virus, two in B.C., two in Alberta and one each in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. None of those people died.

A senior environmental health specialist for the BCCDC, Ken Cooper, noted that the original North American form of West Nile, designated NY99, has mutated, is virtually extinct and has been replaced by WN02, a closely related variation.

According to the BCCDC, only one in 150 people infected with the disease will respond strongly to it; others can carry it without ever knowing they had it. The centre reports that there were 4,511 cases of WNV reported in Canada between 2002 to 2008.

“There are serious side effects for those who become ill with neurological symptoms,” said Cooper an email interview. “Even those who get milder symptoms can still be quite ill and have an impact on health care and on economics.”

The economic cost of responding to avian flu has been felt by farmers around the world, who have had to slaughter their birds, including geese, ducks and chicken, to stave possible spread of the infection. In 1997, Hong-Kong destroyed 1.4 million chickens when a portion tested positive for the infection, according to reports from CBC. In 2007, a commercial duck farm in Regina executed 50,000 birds after some of them tested positive for H7N1, a variation of avian flu that does not kill people.

“Avian flu has a strong economic impact on people who are poultry farmers and [who] work in the agriculture field,” said Wadia. “From Vancouver’s perspective it’s no big deal right now, but if you see it from the perspective of a farmer in China, or a very large poultry processor in Thailand, it’s a huge deal.”

Wadia added he is confident the Canadian health community is well-prepared for H1N1.


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