It’s simple—Vaccinate—‘So you don’t get sick’

By Isha Thompson
Windspeaker Staff Writer

‘Get vaccinated.’

That was one of the main messages sent from the panel of the Virtual Summit on H1N1 in First Nations Communities that took place Nov. 10.

Health experts denounced any myths surrounding the shot, and encouraged everyone to get one, especially those people living in small communities like First Nations reserves.

“Most of us have very little immunity... Getting the vaccine is the best protection,” said Dr. David Butler Jones, Canada’s chief public health officer. He was one of three medical professionals who were part of the panel.
The summit was organized after a communications protocol was put in place by Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Health Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs. The objective of the online summit was to convey all the facts behind H1N1 to Aboriginal communities that may be secluded from mainstream media.

The two-hour summit was co-hosted by AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. The event featured video of a couple of First Nations communities that had prepared for and were handling the H1N1 pandemic, but the majority of the time was allocated to answering some questions still lingering in the minds of people, like how safe the H1N1 vaccine really is.

All three doctors made a point to discount any concerns with the H1N1 vaccine and ended the summit by reassuring viewers that each panel member had plans to get the vaccine along with their families when the vaccine became available to them.

And so should everyone... right?

That depends on who you ask.

From the first moment a vaccine for the H1N1 flu was discussed, critics came out of the woodwork with elaborate speculations on possible effects. Some conspiracy theorists were sure the shot would turn its victims into zombies; others simply felt the vaccination for the new flu strain was rushed and therefore unsafe.

Drug policy researcher Alan Casssels doesn’t denounce the vaccine, nor does he discourage others from lining up for their shot. However, he referred to the rhetoric of the physicians on the summit panel as “coercive.”

“The public health people have a much more exaggerated sense of the benefit of getting vaccinated. I’m not sure where that comes from,” said Cassels.

According to Cassels, it is still too early to know just how effective the H1N1 vaccine is. An “overblown fear of this flu,” is what is contributing the panic around obtaining the vaccine, he said. However, the University of Victoria professor offered up a reminder that a pandemic doesn’t necessarily indicate there is a serious danger. It means H1N1 is widespread.

Cassels agreed that many First Nations communities that are dealing with overcrowding are more susceptible to spreading the flu virus, but he questioned how money for the H1N1 campaign is being spent.

“I am not saying the flu vaccine is bad or good. I am saying we are spending lots of money on this,” said Cassels, who referred to a front-page Globe and Mail article published on Nov. 12 that reported $1.51billion has been spent on H1N1 vaccinations.

Cassels isn’t convinced Aboriginal communities necessarily need a quick dose to protect them from Swine flu, rather than a permanent solution to the underlying issues

“When you are talking about Aboriginal communities, I think there is lots of high priority things like better drinking water and more hygienic living conditions that are probably higher priority than wasting a billion and a half on a massive flu campaign that probably is a lot of nothing.”

Health Canada’s senior medical adviser Dr. Paul Gully was another medical expert on the panel of the H1N1 summit. He not only believes immunization should be promoted, he also referred to the opinions of critics who don’t completely support the vaccine as “worrying.”

During the summit, Gully said he feared the naysayers would scare members of the public away from being immunized.

One thing that both the medical panel and First Nation communities don’t seem to be worried about is being unprepared for the next wave of influenza.

The H1N1 summit showed video clips of First Nations that were successfully preparing their communities for a potential outbreak. The AFN’s public health advisor Dr. Kim Barker said the AFN was encouraging communication with First Nation communities, while Gully reassured listeners that on-reserve nurse practitioners have access to doctors and any other help that they may need.

Carolyne Neufeld, health director at Seabird Island Indian Band in British Columbia, said her clinic is prepared thanks to consistent attention they have received from their local health authority and Health Canada.

“I do thank Health Canada. They have been calling everyday... I can only say good things,” said Neufeld.

“We received all of the supplies we needed [and] we received vaccine we needed in a timely manner,” she added. However, Neufeld later revealed that her one criticism is that she wished her clinic had everything they needed sooner. An earlier shipment of the flu shot would have helped significantly, she said.

“At least 50 per cent of our staff has been off sick,” said Neufeld, who admitted that her staff was unable to watch the H1N1 summit because of how busy the clinic has been.

“Our clinic has been jammed with patients for weeks.”

Neufeld said the flu vaccine was shipped to her at the end of October, but she is confident if the clinic had received it a month earlier, it would have decreased the amount of patients that they are currently caring for.

The live broadcast of the H1N1 summit received just over 1,050 online hits. The AFN had originally planned to leave the recorded broadcast on their Web site for a couple of weeks; however, they have decided to leave it up until Dec. 31.