As an exercise in public health preparedness, Canada’s reaction to the H1N1 flu threat has been a remarkable success so far. Whether the public health outcome is as successful depends on what individual Canadians decide in the coming weeks.
At a cost of over $400 million, the federal government has acquired 50 million doses of vaccine, sufficient for all Canadians who request it. This week Ottawa also announced a supplementary supply from Australia specifically for pregnant women, due to potential concerns about a pharmacological agent used in the main batch. The massive rollout of the vaccine across the country to date has been, for the most part, competently handled.
And yet Canadians seem conflicted about these efforts made on their behalf. According to a national poll released last week, approximately 80 per cent of respondents said they’d been kept well informed about the flu by public health officials and an equal number felt authorities were taking appropriate precautions. On the other hand, only 36 per cent of respondents considered themselves “very likely” to get the vaccine. Nearly half said they planned to skip it.
In other words, most people seem to think their governments are doing a good job of trying to prevent the flu, but they are reluctant to take any personal responsibility.
It’s not a particularly rational position.
There is a sense that the H1N1 flu threat has been overblown—particularly when compared to past pandemics such as the 1918 Spanish influenza. While Canadian officials have been warning us for most of the year, so far we have witnessed less than 100 confirmed deaths. Compared to a typical flu season, this is a very modest toll.
A disconnect between the hard sell from health authorities and the absence of panic in the streets likely explains Canadians’ reluctance to line up for the vaccine. As well, a few well publicized, if extremely rare, complications have given ammunition to vaccine critics and scaremongers. As a result the status quo has been maintained. Despite the heightened risk and additional attention associated with H1N1, the recent 36 per cent poll figure is nearly identical to the 34 per cent of Canadians who bother to get their seasonal flu vaccinations on an annual basis.
This apparent sense of complacency is greatly misplaced. Science and public health management have made great strides in identifying and containing modern flu threats, which has reduced the frequency and severity of outbreaks. However, the underlying risk of a global pandemic has not been eliminated. And these efforts still require broad public participation to succeed. Any amount of government preparation will be for naught if citizens refuse to co-operate because of superstition or ignorance.
In the coming weeks, Canadians will have to make up their own minds about H1N1. We would encourage everyone to get informed and think carefully. H1N1 has the potential to become a global pandemic. Governments have taken the appropriate precautions. Will the rest of us do the same?