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News Conference with Minister of Health and Chief Public Health Officer

The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health

May 2, 2009 6:00 p.m. (EDT)

Thank you, and thank you all for once again for being here.

First, 34 new cases of H1N1 flu virus were confirmed today. This brings the number of confirmed cases in Canada to 85. Thankfully all cases here in Canada remain mild.

It is important that Canadians understand that we are taking a coordinated approach to dealing with this outbreak Our government is working together with our partners to respond to the situation at home and internationally. I also briefed the Prime Minister today and he continues to follow the situation.

Late yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Harper spoke with Mexican President Calderone to discuss the H1N1 influenza outbreak. President Calderone expressed his deep appreciation for Canada’s assistance which he said has been critical to Mexico’s capacity to respond to the situation. They agreed that Canada and Mexico would continue to work together closely to mitigate the outbreak. Canada continues to offer support to Mexico including testing at the National Microbiology Lab and sending two additional scientists from the Public Health Agency to Mexico.

As the number of confirmed cases continues to grow, it is more important than ever that we have a clear and coordinated approach to our communication.

As we have seen in the past week, Canada is well positioned to deal with this outbreak. We have a national plan and we are implementing it.

I also want to thank everyone here today for helping to share the messages about infection prevention, hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes with your arms are simple, effective measures that we can all take.

Thank you and I would now like to turn to Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer.

 

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada

Merci Madame la Ministre, et encore merci a tous de nous accorder votre attention.

We continue to see mild cases and full recovery in Canada, but our vigilance and efforts need to continue, and our heightened surveillance will lead to more and more confirmed cases. This is anticipated and we are prepared to deal with it.

Part of our increased surveillance efforts include the sale of both prescription and off the shelf flu medications. Over 3,000 pharmacies across Canada are assisting in this effort.

As we previously mentioned, tracking the first 100 cases of this virus, looking at who it affects and how, is essential to our understanding of the H1N1 flu virus, and to the process of developing a vaccine.

Under the direction of Dr. Frank Plummer, scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory have started full genome sequencing of the H1N1 flu virus. This research is very important. Many people are asking why the virus seems to be much more severe in Mexico while in Canada and in other parts of the world we continue to see mild cases. Genome sequencing of specimens from both Canada and Mexico will help us to understand if the virus has mutated which may help us to explain the increased severity of the cases in Mexico.

Canada has also sent a total now of 7 epidemiologists and lab researchers to Mexico to assist in their ongoing disease investigation. Some will be helping with things like lab testing while others will go to, say, rural Mexico to help do some disease detective work, like tracking down patient histories to find out where, when and how they were exposed. They are also working with the Mexican Ministry of Health to assist their international public health efforts.

As the Minister mentioned, information on confirmed cases in Canada will be updated on a daily basis at 4 o’clock Eastern Daylight Time, and you can visit the Public Health Agency of Canada website at www.publichealth.gc.ca for more information.

Now in Canada, we have 34 new cases today of the H1N1 flu virus -- 7 in British Columbia, 7 in Alberta, 2 in Ontario, 1 in Quebec and 17 in Nova Scotia. This brings the number of confirmed cases in Canada to 85.

Now, while the risk to most Canadians remains low, we all need to practice basic flu prevention techniques -- always.

 

Dr. Brian Evans, Chief Veterinary Officer for Canada (Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

My name is Brian Evans. I am the Chief Veterinary Officer for Canada.

As Canada’s animal health regulatory agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been playing a supporting role to the Public Health Agency in terms of both technical expertise and collaboration throughout the H1N1 influenza issue. In addition, since April 24, we have been working closely with provinces, territories, the swine sector and private veterinarians in order to enhance the awareness and monitoring of swine herds for any change of health status or illness.

Through this very surveillance and close collaboration with public health authorities the CFIA was informed of a situation involving a Canadian who recently returned from Mexico on April 12 and undertook to do work on a swine farm in Alberta on April 14. This person was exhibiting flu-like symptoms following their return, and may have exposed swine on the farm to an influenza virus. I can tell you that the traveller has recovered. I will let my public health colleagues further address that element of the situation.

With respect to the pigs, there were increased signs of flu-like illness after the contractor had been on the farm, but these animals as well are on their way to recovery. Samples from the pigs are being analysed at our shared Winnipeg facility. We have determined that the virus H1N1 Influenza A found in these pigs is the virus which is being tracked in the human population. Further analysis is underway to provide more insight and contribute to ongoing research efforts.

Seeing influenza infections in pigs is very common, and the transfer of influenza virus from humans to pigs is known to occur. Pigs are known to be susceptible to influenza viruses from humans, from other pigs, and from birds. Fortunately, infected pigs almost always recover on their own within a week or so. Whatever virus these pigs were exposed to is behaving in that exact manner as those we regularly see circulating in North America and in swine herds in virtually every nation around the world. Normally, finding influenza in pigs would not generate any specific response from the CFIA, but obviously the situation is somewhat different, and our response aligns accordingly. The herd has been placed under quarantine and we are working with our public health colleagues to determine the most appropriate next steps to ensure that both public health and animal health remain paramount and protected. The chance that these pigs could transfer a virus to a person is remote, nevertheless we are following an appropriately measured approach.

I want to be clear right now that there is no food safety concerns related to this finding. Consumption of pork is not considered a route of transmission to humans. The World Health Organization and other authorities all agree on this point. These animals are not a food safety risk. The CFIA is closely collaborating with public health officials to investigate any other situations where people with flu like illness may have had contact with swine.

In addition, it is important to note that pigs in Canada are tested and monitored for influenza viruses on an ongoing basis across the country. Unfortunately, we have already seen certain trading partners implement trading restrictions based of the detection of H1N1 influenza virus in humans. We do not believe such restrictions are warranted. This is not simply our view, but that of the international science reference bodies for human health, the World Health Organization, and animal health, the World Health Organization for Animal Health.

The key here is that influenza virus do not affect the safety of pork, therefore, we are calling on the international community to ensure that they base their decisions on facts not fears. This is not the time for the international community to establish precedence which serve to confuse rather than inform the pubic. On this matter, I am pleased to report that Minister Gerry Ritz has had discussions with his counterpart, Secretary Vilsack in the United States and has been assured that this in no way changes the trading relationship between our countries.

I want to thank you for the opportunity to share this information with the public and we will continue to keep Canadians apprised as we move forward.