Get the shot, not the flu

A letter from the Winnipeg Health Region

Winnipeg Health Region President & CEO
Wave, November / December 2009

Dr. Brian Postl

As this issue of Wave goes to print, the Winnipeg Health Region is entering the fifth week of its immunization campaign, the largest mass effort of its kind in recent memory.

And while I am certainly not about to tempt fate and declare "Mission Accomplished" at this point, the evidence suggests that our community is weathering the second wave of the H1N1 influenza outbreak fairly well, especially compared to other parts of Canada.

While we have recorded 481 lab-confirmed H1N1 cases since Oct. 6 (considered to be the start of the second wave), there has not been a surge in the number of people requiring in-hospital treatment. Children appear to be more susceptible to the virus this time around. The rush of parents bringing their children to Children's Hospital with flu-like symptoms in November prompted us to open a satellite clinic to take pressure off the pediatric Emergency Department. But again, there has been no significant increase in the number of children requiring in-hospital care.

So far this fall, two deaths in Manitoba have been linked to the H1N1 virus. The number of H1N1-related deaths has been higher in other parts of the country. Across Canada, about 250 people have died from H1N1-related causes since last April.

It's impossible to know for sure, but I'd like to think that the relatively low level of H1N1 activity has something to do with our efforts to contain the spread of the virus. From a public health perspective, this fall's immunization campaign has been a tremendous success. Despite some supply problems in the first few weeks of the effort, we have already immunized more than 175,000 people and may exceed 200,000 people before the campaign winds down in December.

Most of these vaccines were administered through various mass clinics strategically located throughout the city.

As this story points out, these clinics have been administering vaccine to an average of nearly 12,000 people a day when operating at full capacity. But we also went the extra mile to ensure those most vulnerable to the effects of H1N1 are protected. For example, we established groups of nurses and outreach workers, known as equity teams, to seek out and immunize those who often fall between the cracks in our society, such as the homeless, and those struggling with addiction and mental illness. We have also reached out to those unable to attend our clinics because of mobility issues.

Organizing and running a campaign of this kind is no simple thing. As one colleague jokingly noted the other day, we had to look under every manhole cover in the city to find the nurses, pharmacists and other staff needed to operate the 12 mass clinics on a daily basis. Making this campaign work required the help of 400 nurses, including 80 public health nurses; 62 pharmacists and pharmacy technologists, and 100 volunteers. And that doesn't take into account the nurses at Health Links - Info Santé, who provide advice to the public, or the administrative staff who manage the clinics and take care of matters like renting space and organizing communications.

On behalf of the Winnipeg Health Region, I'd like to thank everyone involved in making this campaign a success - the staff, as well as our human resources and union leaders, who all worked to make things happen as efficiently as possible.

I'd also like to thank some of our other partners, groups like the Red Cross, St. John's Ambulance, Salvation Army and others for their help in the campaign.

Of course, an effort like this one couldn't be successful without the co-operation of you - the residents of this community who came out to the clinics and patiently stood in line to be immunized. The building of a healthy community is a partnership between health-care providers and the people they serve, and you have certainly done your part.

I had a chance to see that partnership in action in another context while working a shift in my capacity as a pediatrician one Sunday at the Children's Hospital H1N1 satellite care centre. While the numbers of sick children showing up for care remained high, the flow of patients through the care centre ran smoothly. Many of the parents I saw were concerned but calm, and seemed very appreciative of this special attention to the needs of their children.

If all goes according to plan, we will soon be entering the next phase of our immunization campaign. As our clinics wind down, we will be making H1N1 and seasonal vaccine available to all family doctors. While we appear to be managing this outbreak relatively well, we are not out of the woods yet. Traditionally, the influenza season begins in fall and ends in spring. That means there still is time for the H1N1 virus to surge, or perhaps for another strain to emerge. Virus activity may be subsiding, but we need to guard against becoming complacent. The best way to do that is to take the time to get a flu shot, either from one of our clinics or from your doctor. In doing so, you will not only protect yourself, you will also help stop the spread of the virus to others who may be more vulnerable. As the gift-giving season approaches, what would make a better present for you and yours?

On that note, I'd like to wish everyone a happy holiday season and all the best in the New Year.

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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