Canadian health officials reported six “mild” cases of swine flu on Sunday — the first confirmed cases in Canada since an outbreak of the illness began in Mexico several days ago — and warned there could be more cases in the days ahead.
As governments around the world rushed on Sunday to check the spread of a new type of swine flu that has killed over 80 people in Mexico and has infected about 20 people in the United States, Nova Scotia health officials said two of the four victims in that province, all students at the same private school, recently visited Mexico. Two case also were confirmed in British Columbia.
None of the people in Canada has been hospitalized.
The Canadian cases “have thankfully been relatively mild and the patients are recovering,” said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who warned “as we continue to ramp up our surveillance efforts these cases are likely not the last we’ll see in Canada.”
Aglukkaq said health officials were “following plans and protocols prepared in advance for events like this.”
The minister said that the government was co-ordinating its response in key departments and that in addition to consulting with provincial and territorial counterparts she had been in contact with officials in the U.S. and at the World Health Organization. Aglukkaq said the prime minister was being regularly briefed on the situation.
“To have our first confirmed cases is of course, troubling,” said David Butler-Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer, adding that while the symptoms in Canada were ‘mild,’ Canadians had to practice good basic flu-prevention techniques, to lower risks of infection.
Because the outbreak is at an early stage “there’s a lot more unknowns than is known” said Frank Plummer of the Public Health Agency of Canada. “We’ll learn a lot more as we do further epidemiological analysis and research.”
Health officials said Washington’s decisions to declare a public health emergency did not suggest people were in greater danger but that the declaration was part of a normal course of action to facilitate state and federal response.
“At this point, we are not seeing severe cases like we are in Mexico,” said Dr. Robert Strang, chief public health officer for Nova Scotia, where four cases were confirmed.
Joe Seagram, the headmaster of the private school in Windsor, N.S., said 21 people were in isolation, 17 students and four staff. They are being isolated for seven days as a precaution.
“All those who had the flu are recovering either at home or in the dormitory,” said Strang.
Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, medical officer of health for the Capital District Health Authority in Nova Scotia, said health officials are closely monitoring the other students at the school.
“One of the challenges with this illness is that it has been so mild that many of the students can’t really tell how sick they are,” she said, adding that most of the children just had a cough and fatigue. There may be many more children who had the virus and didn’t report they were sick because they felt fine, she said.
While some people at the school were wearing face masks over the weekend, Strang said wearing protective covering had not been recommended by health authorities.
Dr. Danuta Skowronski, a spokeswoman for the BC Centre for Disease Control, said the two people with mild cases of swine flu were in the greater Vancouver area and had recently travelled to Mexico.
“This is not scary monsters,” she said at a news conference in Vancouver. “We had a surveillance system on high alert to be able to detect these cases and we have.”
Doctors aren’t sure why the illness has been so deadly in Mexico and mild in other countries, said Skowronski.
“The six confirmed cases in Canada are different from what we are seeing in Mexico,” she said. “We do expect more cases.”
Officials in Ontario and Quebec said there were no cases of the swine flu in their provinces but had people are under observation for the respiratory virus.
Air Canada and Westjet meanwhile announced they were waiving change fees for passengers to and from Mexico booked until April 30.
While all the deaths so far have been in Mexico, the flu is spreading in the United States, and possible infections popped up as far afield as Europe and New Zealand.
About two-thirds of the 1,300 people in Mexico who were suspected of having swine flu were given a clean bill of health and sent home from hospital, according to Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
He said more than 900 people had been declared healthy and nearly 400 others with flu-like symptoms were in hospitals being checked.
Calderon reassured Mexicans on Sunday that the flu is curable with drugs and said Mexico has ample stocks of antiviral medicine.
“It’s very important to act fast and take this seriously, but it’s also very important to stay calm, co-operate with authorities and inform them of any cases that arise,” he said during a meeting of health officials.
Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday that they expected fatalities from swine flu in the United States.
However, the CDC’s acting director, Dr. Richard Besser, told a White House briefing that “if you do not have symptoms you should not get tested” by a doctor.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirmed on Sunday that eight schoolchildren there had contracted the virus, although the cases were mild and it did not appear to be spreading rapidly to the general population. Another 12 cases have been confirmed in California, Kansas, Ohio and Texas.
In New Zealand, 10 students from a school party that had been in Mexico were being tested after showing flu-like symptoms.
The World Health Organization has declared the flu, of a type never seen before, a “public health emergency of international concern” and says it could become a pandemic, or a global outbreak of serious disease.
A 1968 “Hong Kong” flu pandemic killed about one million people globally.
Mexico City, one of the world’s most populated cities, practically ground to a halt on Sunday with restaurants, cinemas and churches closing their doors and millions staying at home.
Worshippers were told to follow Sunday church services on television and some residents abandoned the capital, a rambling, chaotic city of some 20 million people.
Michelle Geronis, 22, a film student, took a bus to be with her family in the central state of Aguascalientes.
“My parents heard the news and said, ’You know what? You’d better get here,’” she said.
In Spain, doctors checked three people who had returned from visiting Mexico who had reported flu-like symptoms.
The new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing several hundred people.
WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan urged greater worldwide surveillance for any unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness.
Although it is called “swine flu” there is no evidence that any of the cases stemmed from contact with pigs, said Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian who works on public health issues for the U.S. National Pork Board.
New flu strains can spread quickly because no one has natural immunity to them and a vaccine takes months to develop.
Authorities across Asia, who have had to grapple with deadly viruses, such as H5N1 bird flu and SARS in recent years, snapped into action. At airports and other border checkpoints in Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, officials screened travellers for any flu-like symptoms.
With files from Phil Couvrette
For more information:
Public Health Agency of Canada at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/index-eng. php; or
World Health Organization at www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/en/index.html.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/flu/swine/investigation.htm.
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