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by Brian Rogers

Well… It looks like Canadians can take a big sigh of relief. Close to nine months and 50.6 million doses later, the H1N1 scare appears to be over. Or is it? Just a day after hearing that a third wave of the flu is unlikely, the Regina Leader-Post ran a story that a third wave could definitely come about if people don’t go out and get the flu shot. What’s worse, another story in the Leader-Post on the same day said health experts are urging Saskatchewan men between age 20 and 24, the least vaccinated group of people, to get a flu shot. 

I reacted to both of these reports with the same interest I’ve given to all of the H1N1 panic: very little.

And it seems I’m not the only one who didn’t rush out and get the shot.

Of the 50.6 million doses–50.4 million purchased from GlaxoSmithKline and 200,000 from Australia–Canada is predicted to have 20 million left over by the end of flu season in April. At about $30 per dose, this means the country over-shot the mark by $600 million. This is a drastic over-run, considering in early November, Health Canada predicted the entire H1N1 campaign would only cost about $405 million.  

Canadian citizens freaked out, Health Canada went on a spending spree, GlaxoSmithKline made a lot of money and the media had a heyday.

But at this point, is Health Canada really afraid that a third wave is imminent and they ought to protect Canadian citizens? Or are they just trying to make the overspending and over-exaggerated predictions look a little less crazy by further promoting the flu’s danger? And likewise, is the Canadian media simply capitalizing on the widespread hysteria to sell papers and get people to tune in?

Now don’t take this the wrong way. H1N1 is indeed a serious illness; people died and pr­ecautions need to be taken – hopefully by those in positions of power – to protect us when life-threatening ailments come about. But there was always such confusion surrounding the pandemic. When it first hit Mexico it sounded like this little known pig flu would all but destroy the country.  Soon after, when the first cases sprang up in Canada, many feared the worst. And the hysteria really hasn’t ceased since.

No one was ever sure who was most susceptible to getting H1N1 either. Was it pregnant women? Or was it those already in ill health? Or, as I heard time and time again, was it young people with no underlying health conditions who would be worst affected? As we teeter on the edge of a possible third wave, there are still fears that young people are at serious risk. But is this maybe just because –as Saskatchewan statistics point out–this is the least vaccinated group and health officials would like to get rid of some of the 20 million remaining doses?

At this point, it’s impossible to discern truth from myth, pandemic from a simple flu. A few of the things that are fairly easy to approximate: GlaxoSmithKline has made about $1.5 billion in Canada alone, about 400 Canadians have died and a little over 40 per cent of the population has been vaccinated.

Read what you want into those stats. Would the flu have spread further if the vaccine wasn’t available?  Logically, the answer is yes, but who knows?

Not helping Canada’s case is the Jan. 6 announcement that the country plans to “lend” five million doses to Mexico. In other countries, where vaccinations have also slowed, flu shots are being donated–not loaned–to the World Health Organization to be distributed to less fortunate areas of the world. If Canada sticks to their plan, we expect Mexico, a country less fortunate and very much still in need of the vaccine, to replenish the Canadian supply by the end of March.

When we look back on H1N1 at the end of flu season in April, hopefully the answers will be more transparent. As for now, it’s pretty easy to argue that the threat may have been overblown.

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