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Dosanjh sees need to fear bird-flu pandemic

With a report from Agence France-Presse


federal Health Minister says there is reason to fear the approach of an influenza pandemic that some experts have suggested could kill more than a million and a half Canadians.

"We need to be worried. We need to be concerned. I don't want people to get a false sense of security that we will be able to do everything and protect everyone," Ujjal Dosanjh said yesterday.

The government does more work every day to get ready for the onslaught of the disease, Mr. Dosanjh said. Provincial and territorial health ministers are to discuss the pandemic preparations when they meet with him in Toronto on the weekend.

As well, international health ministers are to gather in Ottawa next week to discuss how they can contribute to plans being made by the World Health Organization.

They will debate a proposal that would require wealthier countries that have enough anti-viral drugs and vaccines to obtain the equivalent of 10 per cent of their supplies, and donate that to less developed countries. It is an initiative Mr. Dosanjh said he supports.

However, he said, "I am concerned. I want people to be concerned."

Fears in Canada have mounted with the news that the H5N1 avian influenza virus, which has infected 117 people in Asia and killed 60, has spread to Europe.

The virus has not shown the ability to spread from human to human, but there are concerns that it could mutate in that way and parallel the flu pandemic of 1918, which took more than 50 million lives.

Russia and China confirmed new outbreaks yesterday. Russia's agriculture ministry said the virus -- detected in Siberia in the summer -- has appeared in the province of Tula, west of the Ural Mountains, apparently borne by wild ducks. It is the first time the virus has arrived west of the Urals in Russia.

Beijing authorities announced China's first reported outbreak of bird flu in more than two months, saying the disease has killed 2,600 birds on a farm in the northern Inner Mongolia region.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer David Butler Jones said yesterday that he shares Mr. Dosanjh's fears.

"The good news is that [the avian influenza] hasn't shown any change that would suggest that it is better at spreading from person to person," Dr. Butler Jones said.

"But nature is so inventive. And every year is another year since we last saw a pandemic of influenza, which means it's a year closer to the next one."

That reinforces the need for action, he said.

"Should people at this point be lying awake at night worrying about it? I don't think so. But at the same time, they should expect that their governments and public health [agencies] are working together, building the plans, working on the existing plans so that whenever we face it, we are in a better position to respond."

Mr. Dosanjh stressed, as he has repeatedly in recent weeks, that the WHO has declared Canada better prepared to combat a pandemic than most other countries.

But if avian flu does become transmissible from human to human, "it will be a problem that the world will have to reckon with."

Canada has 20 million doses of anti-viral drugs, Mr. Dosanhj said, and more doses are available, although the amount is unknown and the drugs might not stay in Canada.

In addition, he said, doctors and nurses are working to ensure that they can work in other provinces as they are needed without having to obtain new licences.

But the Canadian Medical Association has said the existing doctor shortage makes it almost certain that there will not be enough physicians should the pandemic hit in the next couple of years.

"We all have to worry about these things," Mr. Dosanjh said.

"The fact is, you're going to have 10 to 20 to 30 per cent of people affected by this. We may have some deaths on our hands. But that is not to say that all of our doctors and nurses aren't going to be able to look after people. The fact is that, in terms of pandemic preparedness, doctors and nurses perhaps can train others to engage in some of the basic tasks that don't need medical knowledge."

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