The number of confirmed cases of the Human Swine Influenza (H1N1) in Canada has grown and have now reached more than 160, according to latest data from Public Health Agency of Canada.
Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Quebec have all reported confirmed cases of the H1N1 flu virus.
"We recognize that the Canadian cases have been mild to date, but we are taking this situation very seriously. An enormous amount of work is being done by health officials throughout the country to monitor the situation, plan for the future and make the best decisions possible for the health of Canadians," Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a statement issued on April 28.
The government has also called for a travel health warning for Mexico advising Canadians to postpone non-essential travel to the country. Travelers coming into Canada from Mexico are being given information bulletins with health advice and are being screened by border officers for illness.
"In Canada, we are well- positioned to deal with this. We are following our national plan and working to mitigate the effects of a possible pandemic," said Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer.
The SARS epidemic that struck Canada six years ago led many companies to put in place emergency and pandemic preparedness strategies, and this may be a good opportunity for employers to revisit those documents and update them as necessary in light of the recent developments with the swine flu outbreak, said Melanie Warner, a partner at Toronto-based law firm Borden Ladner Gervais LLP and member of the firm's Labour and Employment Group.
"What those plans say, if they have them, is something to the effect that employers and employees should be monitoring the MInistry of Health website and making sure that they have the best available up-to-date information on what the Swine Flu is and how it's spread, how frequent it is, how many cases there are, because knowledge is power, so the more they know about it the better off they are," Warner said.
Employers should also be looking at what their obligations are under the law, including the Employment Standards Act and the Human Rights Code, in the instance that an employee becomes sick or exhibits symptoms of the swine flu.
The possibility of employees getting infected also shines a spotlight on the employer's obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to maintain a safe work environment, Warner said.
"You could be asking people if they have recently travelled to Mexico, and if they have recently travelled to Mexico you might suggest that they visit their doctor and give the all-clear before they return to work. Or if they are exhibiting symptoms of the swine flu, you might request them to go to their doctor and get clearance before they return to work."
Warren also cited the legal question of whether the swine flu or an employee diagnosed with the infection could constitute as "physical condition" of the workplace that would allow an employee to exercise the right to refuse unsafe work. "But certainly an employee could exercise that right and then it would be up to the employer or an inspector or ultimately the Ministry of Labour to decide whether it was a proper work refusal. But they would have to show that the physical condition of the workplace is likely to endanger themselves, so that's really the legal question that has to be decided."
A similar issue came up during the SARS outbreak where certain health care workers were concerned about whether they had to continue working. Warren noted that under the OHSA, the right the refuse unsafe work does not apply to people working in certain sectors such as hospitals, ambulance, correctional facilities and police force.
Following are some useful facts people should know about the swine flu, lifted from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Swine influenza is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by the influenza A virus.
Human swine influenza
Swine flu viruses do not normally infect humans. From time to time, human infections do occur, resulting in human swine influenza. Human swine influenza is a respiratory illness that causes symptoms similar to those of the regular human seasonal flu.
Sometimes, humans and animals can pass strains of flu back and forth to one another through direct close contact. When a swine influenza virus does affect a human, there is also a risk that the animal influenza can mutate and then spread directly between humans.
More investigation is needed on how easily the virus spreads between people, but it is believed that it is spread the same way as regular seasonal influenza. Influenza and other respiratory infections are transmitted from person to person when germs enter the nose and/or throat.
Symptoms include fever, fatigue, lack of appetite, coughing and sore throat. Some people with human swine influenza have also reported vomiting and diarrhea.
It is unlikely that the seasonal flu shot will provide protection against human swine influenza. The flu shot will protect against the seasonal flu, which is still circulating in Mexico.
Pandemic influenza is defined as a new influenza virus that spreads easily between humans and affects a wide geographic area. More information is needed to determine how easily this virus spreads.
A vaccine is any preparation intended to produce immunity to a disease by stimulating the production of antibodies. Canada has a plan for a vaccine to be produced domestically if a pandemic occurs, which will take about six months once the virus is identified. Enough pandemic vaccine will be produced to cover all Canadians.
Antivirals are drugs used for the prevention and early treatment of influenza. Two antivirals that appear to be effective in treating this illness are oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza).
To protect against the spread of infection, Public Health advises Canadians to:
• Wash hands thoroughly with soap, warm water or use a hand sanitizer
• Cough and sneeze in your arm or sleeve
• Keep doing what you normally do, but stay home if you're sick
• Check www.fightflu.ca for more information