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Edmonton, Alberta has an Avian Flu plan

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Survival Strategies: Stock up and steel yourself for 'societal disruption'


Sarah O'Donnell, The Edmonton Journal

Published: Sunday, December 04, 2005


Hans Machel believes in taking sensible precautions.


He fastens his seatbelt. He stores a week's worth of firewood at home in case the power goes out. He wears safety goggles when handling power tools.


Machel is so alarmed by the swelling mountain of research warning of an influenza pandemic that the University of Alberta earth sciences professor has enough food, water and emergency supplies to hole up at home for two weeks.


That includes gasoline stored safely in his garage and a 14-day supply of Tamiflu in his fridge, medicine that can ease influenza's aches and coughs.


"I'm using common sense," Machel says. "If half or even just a third of the population is ill, so ill they can't perform their job -- take half the people out of general society, gas stations, banks, grocery stores -- society as we know it will go belly up."


Public health experts and disaster planners have a term to describe what Machel is preparing for: societal disruption. That's any breakdown in life as we know it. It can be as minor as waiting an extra 15 minutes in the grocery store checkout because staff are off sick. Or it can be as monumental as a ban on people congregating in large groups in places such as movies theatres and churches.


Alberta Health and Wellness warns the impact could be "broad and severe" if sickness sweeps across the country and becomes a moderate to serious pandemic.


"Major disruptions to all social and economic sectors could occur," says a provincial government website.


Few will be surprised when the first person falls sick in Edmonton with the new flu. Most will have braced themselves for weeks.


Sherry Cooper, chief economist for BMO Nesbitt Burns, describes what might happen at the first sign of the pandemic.


Crowds of worried shoppers will empty store shelves of emergency supplies such as bottled water, canned food and generators.


People also will rush pharmacies for essential medications and medical products such as insulin, she says in an October report on pandemic influenza titled Don't Fear Fear or Panic Panic: An Economist's View of Pandemic Flu.


"With today's global supply chain, shortages would soon develop," Cooper writes.


To preserve supplies, shoppers may face rationing.


Meanwhile, we will wait for this highly contagious disease, popping up like weeds around the world as travellers spread the virus, to make its way here. The lack of direct international flights that we normally complain about could buy us a little more time than some Canadian cities.


Many will religiously adhere to strict hand-washing regimens. Anyone coughing or sneezing will be eyed with suspicion.


Then, one morning, the Capital Health Authority will call a news conference. Dr. Gerry Predy, standing before a microphone, will tell us what he has already told the mayor and city manager by phone. Edmonton has its first case of this dreaded flu.


That's when Cathy Gendron will pull her four foster children out of school.


"You bet I will, for their own safety and our own," says Gendron, fiercely protective of her charges who range in age from five to 17. "I guess we'd be doing some home-schooling."


For the first time in their lives, many, like Gendron, will change their daily routines to protect their health.


"This generation has no context for this whatsoever," says Cindy Jardine, an expert in risk communication at the University of Alberta. "We've missed any recent kind of massive outbreak of disease.


"This is not the polio generation or the tuberculosis generation or the Spanish flu generation. Even the small epidemics that have occurred, here in Alberta we're so geographically removed from those, that it will be very hard to bend our minds around what kind of consequences this is going to have for us personally and as a society."


After a year that has seen a hurricane drown New Orleans and turn some of its residents into looters, it is easy to imagine a pandemic pushing Edmonton into chaos -- its citizens storming hospitals for antiviral medication and stealing from short-staffed shops.


But those who already have spent years thinking and planning for this health emergency expect that inconvenience, not anarchy, will predominate.


"There will be social change and disruption," Edmonton police Supt. P.J. Duggan says. "But there will not be social disorder."


Avoidance and inconvenience


Every Thursday morning, as they have for more than a decade, a group of west Edmonton women meet at Westmount Centre mall.


The group -- as many as 10 women some weeks -- includes retired health professionals, a synchronized swimming coach, secretaries and homemakers.


They've lived through polio and tuberculosis scares. And when the topic turns to a pandemic, they share a common attitude towards how their lives will change.


They won't run and hide.


"We've all been volunteers over the years and we wouldn't stop," says Auddie Taylor, a retired registered nurse. "I've got lots of kids and grandkids, so I'd be helping them out, too."


"When you care for your elderly parents for 10 years, you're not afraid of anything," Connie Black says.


The weekly coffee klatch will continue but they'll avoid the mall.


"We might meet at each others' homes instead," Taylor says.


Depending on the severity of the pandemic, they might not have a choice.


The most aggressive public health measures will come in the early days of the disease striking Edmonton. The first handful of sick people will be isolated in their homes. Environmental health officers armed with letters from Capital Health will knock on their doors and reiterate the letter's contents: Stay inside. Stay away from others.


Those who have been in contact with them -- family, friends and co-workers -- will be quarantined.


Unaffected family and friends will be expected to help out delivering food and medical supplies to their quarantined loved ones.


Our city, which prides itself on its volunteer spirit, will start a list of people available to help.


Volunteers will deliver meals to the sick, drive the elderly to vaccine sites and anything else officials deem necessary.


"Once you start to have little cases sporadically through the city, that is going to start to be a different scenario," says Dr. Karen Grimsrud, deputy provincial health officer.


Tracing the steps of the sick to see whom they might have infected will become too onerous. That's because influenza is highly contagious, making it tough to contain.


The U of A's Jardine predicts most people's first reaction will be self-preservation. They will also want to know everything health professionals know or suspect, even if it later proves to be wrong.


"The gut reaction of everybody is going to be, 'What can I do to protect myself and the people that I love?'" Jardine says. "We're all going to be a bit selfish from that perspective."


That means people like Hans Machel will shun public places.


"That doesn't necessarily mean that I want to be in an igloo or a bubble and will never go out anymore, but I would try to avoid places that are bound to be germ factories," Machel says.


Few will want to step onto an airplane or spend hours in a crowded public venue with strangers.


The symphony, hockey games, shopping malls, night clubs and movie theatres will be economic victims.


Some businesses will allow employees to work from home.


Restaurants will be hit hard. Almost half of what Canadians eat is prepared outside the home. Workers such as waiters, cooks or cashiers will be dismissed during the slump.


Whether they collect paycheques will be up to employers. But there will be pressure on the federal government to swiftly provide these workers with unemployment insurance.


BMO's Cooper estimates that pandemic influenza will cost Canada's economy $8 billion to $18 billion, possibly higher.


Governments will act selfishly to protect their citizens. Some countries will close borders, adding infected nations to a no-fly list. Food experts expect these closures to choke off our usual supplies of fresh fruit and some vegetables.


Alberta, with its plentiful supply of meats and grains, will be better off than many places.


The problem with pandemic influenza


There are mornings when Sheila Vaisanen joins the long line-up in the Bissell Centre for a hot lunch or sandwich.


To protect her health during a pandemic, the 31-year-old will wear a mask and avoid busy places such as the Bissell Centre, even if that means giving up a meal.


There are good reasons to fear the flu. It can leave you achy, feverish and weak for days. It also can be deadly, particularly if your immune system is fighting off a foreign invader like the strain of H5N1 avian flu that popped up most recently in China, killing two people.


The monumental challenge for communities will be this: How do you keep providing essential services such as garbage pick-up, transit, firefighting and police if you suddenly lose 10, 20, 30 or even 40 per cent of your staff to illness? And how do you keep essential, private sector businesses, especially food suppliers and pharmacies, offering goods that people depend on?


Edmonton's emergency preparedness director Bob Black says the city can continue to offer key services for a limited time, with up to a third of the staff away.


"Beyond 30 per cent, we have to, in certain areas, start looking very carefully at prioritization of services," he says.


Bus and LRT service, for example, could shift to a Sunday schedule until the number of drivers is back to full strength. Edmonton police could suspend some non-emergency work such as traffic safety programs and school visits.


The changing face


of Edmonton


Many Edmontonians will alter their lives in a pandemic. But with the disease coming in waves over a period of a year, few will be able to lock themselves away.


In 1918, the government ordered many public-health measures in a desperate effort to protect people from the deadly Spanish flu. In Edmonton, all public gatherings, including church services, were banned. Face masks were mandatory.


Next time, any public-health measures ordered by the province for one community will be repeated across Alberta.


It is unlikely that public facilities will be ordered to close.


The one exception could be schools. Kids are excellent germ transmitters, so if the disease starts killing children, schools will be shuttered.


Health officials say, however, that will only be a last resort since shutting schools triggers a host of problems for working parents.


Face masks, a fixture during the Spanish flu, will reappear but not due to government decree.


Medical experts question whether face masks will do any good. Blair Wick, a 28-year bus driver with Edmonton Transit says he'd want to wear one, along with protective gloves.


Already, some medical supply stores report a stream of worried customers buying good-quality masks.


Those who ask at Homecare & Surgical on Whyte get this advice from sales associate Sara Thomas: "Buy the N95 mask." Price: $3 per mask.


"We've limited some people when we've been low on stock," Thomas says. "But most people get at least a full box of 20 because they think about their family and friends."




With his boxes of corn flakes, cans of vegetable soup, club soda and ground coffee, Hans Machel is a model for the message that disaster planners want to drill into our collective consciousness: Be prepared.


A severe pandemic will tax government resources.


Everyone, they warn, needs to be ready to look after themselves and their families without assistance for at least a few days.


Tamiflu is the one thing Machel has that isn't on a typical emergency supply list.


But after compiling a four-page memo on the imminent threat of a flu pandemic, which he e-mailed to 10 friends and family members, he doesn't regret having his doctor write a prescription two months ago for the anti-viral.


Tamiflu won't necessarily save your life if you're horribly sick, Machel says, but it could increase your chances of survival.


"It's like running across Whyte Avenue and not looking where you're walking," he says.


"People do that, they get run over, and they shouldn't be surprised when it happens. That will happen with the pandemic. If you don't watch where you're going, you're done for."




Flu Fact: Influenza is a lung infection that typically starts with a headache, chills and cough, followed rapidly by fever, loss of appetite, muscle aches and fatigue, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and throat irritation. As many as one-quarter of Canadians get the flu each year. Up to 1,500 die each year of pneumonia brought on by the flu while others die of complications.




Fear of germs during an influenza pandemic means that handshakes will, at least temporarily, be eschewed as a greeting. But hands are only one source of germs. Here's how long the virus survives on different surfaces.


w Hands: Five minutes


w Cloth, paper and tissue: Eight to 12 hours


w Hard surfaces: 24 to 48 hours.


Source: Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan





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Edmonton, Alberta has an Avian Flu plan

Living here, I just have to say LOL!!! No public official (specifically Dr Gerry Predy--director of something-or-other for Edm) has made a publicised statement about avian flu. In other words, they're not telling people that they are ready, if they even are. I know for certain that I am not ready. A little bit of rope and canned tomatoes can only go so far if I'm sick at home and can't make money. But I am working on it.
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