Meeting the challenge

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave Magazine, Summer 2009

Dr. Brian Postl

Like health authorities around the world, the Winnipeg Health Region has spent the last few years preparing for the next influenza pandemic, one that experts say may well rank with some of the larger and deadlier outbreaks in history.

And by now, most people reading this column will know that the recent surge in H1N1 influenza cases in Manitoba has provided us with a glimpse of what such a pandemic could look like - as well as what we might expect to see in the upcoming fall and winter flu season.

To say that all of our planning and preparation was put to the test during the last few months is an understatement. As reports of an influenza outbreak emerged from Mexico in the spring, our team at the Region went into high gear, readying our system to handle a potential outbreak here. Once the H1N1 virus surfaced in Manitoba and spread through the province and into our northern communities, our Emergency Departments and Critical Care Units began experiencing pressure to provide care to those who became ill. The surge in the number of people with severe respiratory illness associated with H1N1 put intense pressure on critical care beds, necessitating the reduction of surgical slates, redeployment of staff and the purchase of additional equipment, such as ventilators. Each day, critical assessments were made, and carefully orchestrated steps were taken to ensure that we were able to meet emerging care needs.

Influenza generally affects older people who may suffer from other health issues. The H1N1 strain is different in that it appears to target younger people, including those who are otherwise healthy. Hundreds of Manitobans have been exposed to the H1N1 virus with little or no effect, while many others have been treated for symptoms or staged a full recovery. But as this column is being written, five deaths in Manitoba have been attributed to the virus. That number is in line with what we might expect during a typical influenzaseason in Manitoba (500 to 2,500 deaths are attributed to influenza annually in Canada), and is a sobering reminder of the challenge this outbreak poses to our community.

Health-care providers working in this community clearly understand the kind of challenge that is posed by outbreaks like this one. They responded to the surge of H1N1 cases by delivering outstanding care, at times under trying circumstances. I'm proud to be associated with these dedicated women and men, and thank all of them for their hard work. I'm also proud of the way our staff stepped up when the call went out for volunteers to help provide care to our First Nations communities in northern Manitoba that were hard hit by the virus. A number of nurses, doctors, and nurse practitioners from our Region have already been deployed to these communities to lend a hand to our northern neighbours, and more have come forward with offers to go in the weeks and months ahead, if needed.

Future issues of Wave will provide you with more information about how we as a Region are learning from the experiences of the last few months and gearing up for future influenza outbreaks. But one thing we already know is that while it is not always within our power to avoid illness or injury, it is possible to reduce our risk.

That point is nicely illustrated by the cover story in this issue of Wave. It notes that a growing number of Manitobans are taking steps to protect themselves from the harmful rays of the sun. That's an encouraging trend, especially when one considers that thousands of Canadians will still be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. As my colleague Dr. Dhali Dhaliwal, President of CancerCare Manitoba and Medical Director of Oncology for the Winnipeg Health Region, notes in the story, these cases can largely be attributed to people simply taking in too much sun. But one doesn't have to shun the sun to avoid developing skin cancer. All you have to do is take a few simple measures, such as applying lots of sunscreen.

While we have been focusing on the H1N1 virus, we can't forget that along with the summer season in Winnipeg arrives the mosquito and the threat of West Nile virus. Our Ask a Nurse column offers tips on how to protect yourself from these pesky insects and reduce your risk of contracting WNv.

We can also reduce our risk by being conscious of little-known health threats, no matter how small. Consider the story of Dean Hunter, who was struck by blastomycosis, a potentially fatal fungal infection. According to Dr. John Embil, Director of the Infection Prevention and Control Program for the Winnipeg Health Region, the soil in northwest Ontario and some parts of southeast Manitoba are hotspots for fungus activity in North America. In Dean's case, the infection resulted in a tumour-like growth in his head that nearly killed him. Fortunately, Dr. Embil is a leading expert in this area. Working with his lab crew, he was able to diagnose Dean and prescribe proper treatment. Although confirmed cases of blastomycosis remain extremely rare, it can be difficult to diagnose, which is all the more reason for all of us to be aware of it.

Another health issue that tends to fly below the radar involves sleep, which is critical to our health and well-being. That's where our Region's new and consolidated Sleep Disorder Centre comes in. This story explains how staff at the centre work to help patients overcome a range of sleeping disorders. And, for the restless among us, there are suggestions on how to get a better night's sleep.

Of course, I would be remiss in my responsibilities as a physician if I didn't take this opportunity to talk about injury prevention. The months between May and September are often the busiest times of the year for our Emergency Departments and Critical Care Units. On many weekends, you will find staff treating or fighting to save the lives of motorists who were not wearing their seatbelts, or cyclists who didn't think they needed a helmet. This issue of Wave contains safety tips for young swimmers and cyclists. Our hope is they will help prevent an injury or save a life.

As you can see, this issue of Wave is packed with helpful information on a wide range of topics. I hope you will find the stories and columns in this edition enlightening and engaging, and may they help make your summer a safe and healthy one.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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