Preparing for the H1N1 virus

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave Magazine, Fall 2009

Dr. Brian Postl

Based on the evidence, it seems a pretty safe bet that we will see more people infected with the H1N1 influenza virus this fall and winter. Just how many is hard to say.

Agencies such as the World Health Organization say the virus has established itself as the dominant influenza strain in many parts of the Southern Hemisphere and warn that a second wave in North America and Europe is on its way. At the same time, the agency says the strain shows no evidence of mutating into a more lethal form.

All the talk surrounding a possible resurgence of H1N1 this fall and winter has left a lot of people feeling a bit worried about potential risks to them and their family. That's understandable. No one wants to put themselves or members of their family needlessly at risk.

The urgency surrounding H1N1 emanates from its sudden appearance in Mexico last spring and its seeming ability to spread quickly and kill a large number of people who were exposed to it. We now have more information to help us put the threat into better perspective. For example, we now know that many people infected by the virus will show little or no effects, while some others will get sick and be able to recover at home. That is not to diminish the seriousness of the H1N1 threat. People who do get sick can get extremely sick, and a significant number of people have died from complications related to the virus. In trying to assess the risk of H1N1, the best advice is: don't panic, but don't take it lightly, either.

The logical question, then, is what, if anything, can we do to reduce our risk of becoming sick? Fortunately, the answer is there are plenty of things we can do.

In fact, we here at the Winnipeg Health Region have just put the finishing touches on an action plan designed to help prevent the spread of H1N1 and better treat those who do become sick with the virus.

In this, our third issue of Wave, you will find a special report on the H1N1 virus. In addition to a story that helps put a human face on the virus, you will find information on how you and members of your family can help reduce the risk of becoming infected with the virus. You will also find information about our mass immunization campaigns, for both seasonal influenza and the H1N1 virus, as well as other measures we are taking to help prevent the spread of H1N1 and treat those who do become ill. Hundreds of Winnipeg Health Region staff members, often working with outside groups such as the province, the federal government and the City of Winnipeg, among others, have worked hard to pull together this readiness plan, and I am confident that we are well positioned to deal with the H1N1 threat.

But there is more to influenza prevention than vaccines and staffing levels. As the virus spread through our province last spring, it became clear that specific groups within the larger community are more at risk for illness brought on by disease and afflictions such as the H1N1 virus. It's fair to say that H1N1 doesn't discriminate - the virus will attack anyone. But it's also fair - indeed, important - to point out that the virus seems to have thrived in some of our First Nations communities. Science does not have an answer for this yet, but I think it's pretty clear that at least part of the reason is that many residents in these communities are living in less than ideal conditions. Poor access to healthy foods, crowded living conditions, lack of running water - all of these things can undermine a person's health, making them more susceptible to chronic diseases or infections, like the H1N1 virus.

As a Region, we are committed to doing what we can to treat patients who come through our doors. But our duty and our responsibility does not end there. As noted in a report produced last year by Canada's medical officers of health, social and economic conditions can negatively influence the health and well-being of individuals, resulting in a health equity gap between those who live in poverty and those who do not.

As a Region, we are trying to do our part to close that gap. Through various outreach programs, we have taken steps to work with our community partners to provide care and wellness information to those living in less than ideal conditions. We have an aboriginal health program to support efforts to reach out to First Nations people living in Winnipeg and in remote communities throughout Manitoba and Nunuvut. In the wake of last spring's experience, we created a committee to look at ways to enhance H1N1 prevention and care for First Nations people. Meanwhile, Catherine Cook, who heads our aboriginal health program, has been named by the province as an advisor on H1N1 issues.

The Winnipeg Health Region is stepping up in other important ways as well. For example, we have contributed $250,000 to the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council and $600,000 to reduce homelessness in our community. These efforts will not eliminate the health threat posed by H1N1 and other diseases and afflictions. But they can help reduce the risk. And they also help underscore the Winnipeg Health Region's commitment to caring for all.

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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