Fire Fighting in Canada

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Comment: December 2014

Writer Jay Shaw suggested that the headline for our cover story about Ebola preparedness be “Fear virus,” because of the seemingly over-the-top angst among first responders about a threat which, as of Nov. 6 when this issue of the magazine went into production, had yet to surface in Canada.

While we left the words virus of fear in the story on page 10, we wanted to make sure the headline on the cover was balanced and fully explained the context of Jay’s thorough report.

But Jay’s point is well taken: while Ebola is a horrible disease, it’s tough to contract and as of early November – save for three cases in Dallas and one in New York – had been contained primarily to regions that lack the adequate infrastructure to mange it.

While media hype is a given – pictures of doctors in full PPE and rows of suffering patients make for great TV – and fear of the unknown is human nature, failing to pay attention to credible sources and getting caught up in overblown and sometimes inaccurate details is easier than doing the necessary research to refute bad information.

As Dr. John Embril, the head of infectious diseases with Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, told Jay, first responders should be more worried about the thousands of people who die in Canada every year of influenza than about the risk of Ebola.

While influenza can affect anyone, it is particularly hard on young and older people – those for whom family members are inclined to call 911. First responders are not required to be immunized against this known threat that leads to thousands of deaths annually, yet there has been a huge and cry over a perceived lack of preparedness against a disease that does not exist here. Go figure.

Think back a few years to when responders insisted they be among the first to receive shots for H1N1. Or back to 2003 and the SARS outbreak in Ontario. These were real, but manageable threats.

On Oct. 16, after the three confirmed cases of Ebola in Dallas, IAFF president Harold Schaitberger posted a YouTube video in which he called for a safety stand down for Ebola preparedness.

“The IAFF made this decision because too many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada have not adequately provided the training, equipment and resources needed so you can respond appropriately to potential Ebola incidents,” Schaitberger said.

But as Embril says in Jay’s story, the risk of Ebola in North America is minuscule simply due to already-in-place protocols. The situation in West Africa, he says, where patients lie side by side, is a perfect storm of transmission.

If you really want to protect yourself from viruses of all kinds, he says, get the flu shot, pay attention, and wash your hands.

November 26, 2014  By Laura King

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