Friday, October 28, 2005


Talk to me about this bird flu thing...

I'm curious. What do you think about this whole avian flu thing? Are you stockpiling peanut butter, paper masks and drinking water? Are you getting a flu shot? Are you rolling your eyes at people who even mention the words "flu pandemic" in conversation? I know about a hundred people drop by here on the average day, so if you haven't joined in the conversation before - speak up! I'd really like to hear from a wide range of people on this one (God bless the Internet.)

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was pretty quick to dismiss the pandemic fear-mongering as much ado about nothing from the wingnut and fringe crowd. You might remember that Canada was hit particularly hard by the SARS virus in 2003, and I dialed in to the daily federal government communications conference call on that, so I had a pretty good view from the inside. In the end, it was the hype and hyperbole that scared me more than the virus. Up until recently, I was lumping the public's reaction to an inevitable pandemic in with their response to SARS and the Y2K thing - and dismissing it as mass hysteria based on hype, misunderstood facts and rampant speculation.

Then I read a blog entry from someone for whom I have immense respect, and she was taking this whole thing very seriously. Within three days, another mummy friend - whom I would consider the antithesis of the chicken-little type - told me about all the research she'd been doing, and how genuinely frightened she is. It was enough to make me stop in my tracks and take a good look around.

This week, Canadian health ministers and representatives from international public health organizations met here in Ottawa to discuss plans and options in the case of a flu pandemic. That's probably a large part of why at least the local media has been saturated with all things avian this week - and part of the reason I'm interested in your view from out there. I read an article a month or so ago in Macleans magazine that reinforced my previous opinion that the fear of the flu is out of proportion to the actual risk we face. Read it if you have time, it's a reassuring counterpoint to some of the more scary information out there.

And that's exactly the problem. Instinctively, I want to read information that confirms what I want to believe - that this whole flu pandemic thing is hype, and that the risk to me, to my kids, to my family and those in my life, is minimal. After all, only 60 people have died so far. (Perspective check: each year, 250,000 to 500,000 people die from the flu globally, 500 to 1500 of them in Canada, and most of those people are already sick or elderly. Stats courtesy of Health Canada.) The bird flu has not yet transmitted person to person. Yes, the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 decimated the population around the globe - but think of the advancements in medicine and science since 1918. There was no public health care, no vaccines in 1918. That's the year my grandmother was born - we've come a long way, baby.

Waffle alert!! And yet - I'll be lining up next Saturday to get my flu shot for the first time ever. They're holding a clinic near my house, and it's just too convenient not to do it. I'm going to get the boys vaccinated for the first time as well. I'm a believer in vaccines, and since they're free I can't come up with any good reason not to have everyone get their shot.

That's my concession to fear, I guess, although it's more because I think it's a smart and practical thing to do, rather than because I believe we are facing the possibility of society grinding to a halt when the pandemic hits. (Touches wood.) I'm not stockpiling peanut butter just yet. But I'm not sticking my head in the sand either.

Just this morning, I had to resist the urge to get my knickers in a twist when I read that if there were a flu pandemic and a vaccine were developed, the Canadian Public Health Agency has said that kids aged 2 - 18 would be the last ones vaccinated. They'd have a hell of a fight on their hands if they denied me when I took my kids in to get vaccinated in my place. Take a deep breath, I told myself, that's a lot of "ifs".

What do you think? Please comment, because I'd really like to hear a range of perspectives on this. Are you taking steps to protect yourself, your family? Are you worried? Are you stockpiling fresh water and tins of soup? Or do you think the whole thing is just the latest media frenzy and that we'll all be shrugging sheepishly when this, too, peters out to nothing?