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New flu strains alarm authorities

Health officials aim to vaccinate half of population WATERLOO - Two new virulent strains of influenza headed for Ontario could make people more susceptible to the flu because they haven't had a chance to build up their immunity to them. Dr. Liana Nolan, Waterloo Region's medical officer of health, said the Moscow and Sichuan strains pose a new threat to health. But their symptoms are not necessarily more serious than those brought on by other strains.

Nevertheless, "influenza can make people very, very sick and can kill people,'' she said in an interview yesterday.

To combat all strains of the flu, the region is receiving its first shipment of vaccines next week and will begin holding clinics in the community on Oct. 22.

A news report yesterday said there are three new strains coming this way. But Nolan said one of them, New Caledonia, was already in circulation last year. As for Moscow and Sichuan, she said "two of the three strains we haven't really been exposed to. But they are related to previous strains. We're not talking about a huge shift. We're talking about a drift.''

The Ontario government made flu vaccines available to the general public for the first time last year. In Waterloo Region, about 30 per cent of the population, or 140,000 people, got their shots.

"This year, our target is 50 per cent,'' Nolan said.

She urged people to get the vaccines to protect not only themselves but their friends, families and others, noting the highly contagious nature of the virus which is spread through coughing, sneezing and contact with respiratory secretions.

Children are most susceptible to the virus because of close contact in schools. And they can transmit it to adults and family members.

However, Nolan said "children who are healthy aren't likely to become seriously sick. They might miss a few days of school and feel crummy but they aren't likely to wind up in hospital.''

While children are the most exposed, Nolan said those who are most vulnerable to more serious complications are people over age 65, living in long-term care facilities, suffering chronic illness such as lung and heart disease or infants under the age of two.

"If you and your family get immunized, one of the benefits is that you won't be passing it on to those people in high risk categories.''

The flu season fluctuates but normally begins in November or December, Nolan said.

The region's health unit plans to distribute the vaccine to doctors' offices, urgent care clinics, long-term care facilities, hospitals and student health centre at local universities.

Nolan said "the vast majority'' of people suffer no side effects from the vaccine. Something in the order of 10 to 15 per cent have mild effects such as "a bit of a sore arm and redness at the site (of the injection). Some people might feel a bit achy and feverish for about a day. But that basically means your body is mounting an immunity to the virus.''

At the other end of the scale, there is a very small risk _ a chance she described as "one in a million'' _ that a person could develop a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis within about 15 to 30 minutes.

That's where "people get hives and the main problem is swelling of the throat which makes it difficult to breathe.'' The reaction can be lethal but Nolan said adrenaline is kept on hand when the vaccine is administered and a shot of that is virtually certain to reverse the side effect.

The doctor added "the risk is very rare and the benefit is huge.''

For more information, the public can call the region's immunization information line at 883-2007, ext. 5273.

The time and location of clinics will be widely advertised. Beginning sometime next week, other information can be found by clicking on the link to community health on the region's Web site at

-- Martin Thompson (, September 28, 2001

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