Canada prepares for flu pandemic against young children

Image copyright Stanley Farrow Image caption Gary Gergel, a father of two, hopes the vaccines will keep his kids safe from contracting a cold and flu season

In an age when the Ebola epidemic still sticks in our minds, North America has a real worry: H1N1 flu.

This year’s not even going to arrive until the end of January – but Canadian public health authorities are taking action to prevent it from spreading.

They’re starting to vaccinate kids from the age of five to 11.

The impetus is linked to the expected outbreak of H1N1 flu, an influenza A virus first identified in swine at an animal farm in Mexico, in 2009.

In the event of a pandemic this strain would likely affect more children.

“We will be looking at the frequency and number of flu cases that occurs when there is a pandemic,” said Dr Andre Ménard, chief of the section for communicable diseases at the Canadian Centre for Disease Control (CCDC).

Image copyright Toronto Public Health Image caption Vancouver was hit with an H1N1 outbreak in 2010-11

“That is something we have to prepare for. This virus is a threat to young children and the elderly.”

Toronto Public Health (TPH) launched its early vaccination programme on Saturday, thanks to collaboration with other public health authorities.

The same coordination that will see the Toronto Fire Department vaccinate children against diphtheria, tetanus and polio, the Toronto Police Service vaccinate against pneumonia and sepsis, will see them cover 100 schools.

The TPH will also vaccinate children between six months and five years of age from colleges and universities, often frequented by school-age children from overseas.

Image copyright Toronto Public Health Image caption Unlike previous vaccines, there will be no side effects

In 2001 a total of 58,314 young people aged 14 to 17 years of age were vaccinated against H1N1, according to Public Health Agency of Canada figures – a small proportion of the estimated total of 327,575 children aged five to 14 who received a dose of the vaccine at that time.

With changing timings and the need to work alongside other federal health authorities, the TPH is taking a different approach.

“We’ve really prioritised vaccinating the children, and the child population, in the population that are likely to be most at risk,” said Dr Karen Germer, an immunologist and director of the TPH Office of Infectious Disease Control.

You are invited to follow the progress of Canada’s first-ever pre-flu pandemic pandemic vaccination by signing up for the BBC Earth, Earth Story, Earth Warning and Earth TV Twitter followers. Follow here .

“That could range from 65,000 to 70,000 children, so it is a big number, but you know we need to start this as soon as possible.

“This is a very complex process. There is a lot of work involved, and lots of coordination, and it takes time to do this work,” she added.

Image copyright Canadian Centre for Disease Control Image caption Dr Andre Ménard says there will be a high degree of coordination between the different public health agencies

Launching an early vaccination programme takes the burden off other public health authorities but also risks causing delays.

And there will also be some children who will be left out of the programme: those who live on farms or in animal houses, those who have to travel overseas during the flu season, or children who live with someone who has the flu.

There will be no side effects from the vaccine, but parents will have to talk to their doctor about other precautions to take.

“Some of these things require some creativity to work around [it], such as trying to keep them in school and keep [them] away from school”, said Dr Gary Gergel, whose two children are nine and 15.

“I’d rather them go through their first three-year flu season unvaccinated than [do it] after they get ill, because then you know they have an immunity in their bodies”.

An earlier outbreak of the common cold killed 20,000 people in the US in winter 2018. These young people, who haven’t been vaccinated, tend to be in school for the winter break, said Dr David Butler-Jones, head of immunisation at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You can imagine the congestion that could be created,” he told the BBC.

“There’s an old saying:

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