has not only been an unusually mild winter (except for last weekend), but an
unusually mild influenza season. Everyone hopes it will stay that way.
Up to Feb. 1 there had been only 421 hospitalizations
for flu reported in all of Canada. Reported flu deaths were 14 country wide.
That’s a huge improvement from last flu season
when 7,719 people were hospitalized with influenza and 591 died. The year
previous there were 5,284
hospitalizations and 331 deaths.
Light flu seasons tend to make us forget just
how dangerous influenza really is. The World Health Organization (WHO) says
that each year there are three to five million cases of severe influenza
worldwide. Anywhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people a year die from it.
You have to approach those big numbers with some
skepticism. Flu statistics are never totally accurate. They are based on
computer models and quite a bit of guesswork. For instance, if a terminally ill
cancer patient comes down with a flu bug and dies, did she die from influenza?
The last serious flu outbreak was in 2009. It
was the H1N1 virus that became a pandemic which WHO said killed 285,000 people
worldwide. A pandemic is a worldwide outbreak as compared to an epidemic, which
is when a disease affects more people than usual for a region.
No matter how light a flu season might be, none
of us should ever become complacent about influenza. Last fall a report to the
British government identified pandemic influenza as the highest priority
natural hazards risk facing humans.
We are, however, far too complacent about the
danger of avian influenza - the bird flu - and the virus breeding grounds of
Some health experts believe another flu pandemic
is only a matter of time. Some have for years been predicting a flu pandemic
that will infect more than one-third of the world’s population and kill
hundreds of thousands.
It has happened before. The 1918 Spanish Flu
pandemic was a global disaster with 50 million deaths. There have been other
flu pandemics since, including the 1967-68 Hong Kong flu, which I remember well
because it sent me to the hospital.
Many believe the next flu pandemic will begin in
China, the world’s main mixing bowl for bird flu.
Avian flu bugs live harmlessly in the bodies of
waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.When
these birds mix with domesticated poultry, or sometimes pigs, the flu virus
gets passed on and can mutate. Most of these influenza viruses do not affect
humans, but some do and cause epidemics, and even pandemics.
The flu virus world is like alphabet soup. H1N1.
H5N1. H7N9. The names keep changing as the viruses mutate until one comes along
that is the Big One that allows easy human-to-human transmission.
China is an excellent bird flu factory because
it has huge open air poultry operations where waterfowl can easily mix in. And
southern China lies insidemajor
waterfowl migration routes, so there are many opportunities for waterfowl to
pass along their viruses.
Worsening the situation is the world’s
increasing appetite for chicken. Chicken rapidly is becoming the world’s most
popular meat. Global poultry production is said to have quadrupled in the last
Poultry consumption and production is soaring in
China. More of those open air - and in many cases unsanitary - markets or
production areas increase the chances for bird flu virus production.
There is not much average folks
can do to reduce the chances of a serious flu outbreak. We can only hope that
agencies like WHO, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other
public health agencies are diligent in their work.
We all should become better
educated about flu. There are many misconceptions, such as cold weather being a
cause of the flu. There often is more flu in colder weather but that’s only
because people spend more time indoors, increasing contact and the chances of
Better educated and certainly more
aware so we can prod our politicians. We don’t need our politicians and
bureaucrats dozing like they were during the 2002-2003 SARS disaster.