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Swine flu may spread, but risk deemed low

No new cases reported for B.C.

Weeks ago Whistler played host to thousands of visitors from Mexico, who have become a regular fixture during the Easter break. Now, as the disease spreads worldwide, some residents are wondering if some of those visitors may have unintentionally brought the Swine Flu here.

At press time there were 13 reported cases in Canada, including four teenagers from Nova Scotia who visited the Yucatan Peninsula on a school trip who have already recovered. As well, there are four confirmed cases from Ontario, two from Alberta, and three from British Columbia. All nine people recently traveled to Mexico.

According to Vancouver Coastal Health, which is providing regular updates on its website, the risk is minimal unless you have travelled to Mexico. The two cases reported in the Lower Mainland are recuperating at home or have already recuperated after their illnesses were first reported on April 20. One woman from Victoria was confirmed on April 28. She visited Royal Jubilee hospital on Saturday after returning from Mexico with flu symptoms, and was initially told that she did not have the disease.

On Tuesday the Canadian government issued a travel advisory for people travelling to Mexico, but no steps have been taken to prevent travel or quarantine people returning to Canada that may have been exposed to the virus. Despite the mounting death toll in Mexico - reportedly 160, although some may have died from other strains of influenza - authorities are confident that the virus can be contained. Only one person, a 23-month-old child in Texas, has died from the disease outside of Mexico.

The issue is being handled provincially by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), which is itself in contact with foreign agencies battling the outbreak of swine flu.

Dr. David Patrick, director of epidemiology services at the BCCDC, addressed the media on Monday. He recommended caution if you've visited Mexico in recent weeks, but does not see any risk of pandemic in the province.

"It's really important to keep in mind that because we're dealing with influenza we can see a broad range of expressions in people, from mild illnesses to the advanced respiratory disease we've seen in Mexico," he said. "The best way to be a tough target for the virus is to reinforce the public health measures we can take."

Among other things, the BCCDC is recommending that after contracting a flu-like illness people stay home for at least seven days, or until their symptoms have abated. As well, Dr. Patrick advised people to call their doctors if their conditions worsen, as the virus is responding to treatment by antiviral medicines that the province has stockpiled. Most people will be able to fight the virus themselves.

The BCCDC is also recommending frequent hand washing, and using safe sneezing and coughing techniques like coughing into your sleeve.

If you have visited Mexico and develop a fever or cough, the BCCDC recommends self-isolation at home for seven days.

The first alerts went out about the flu on April 20, one week after the Easter long weekend. Since then reports of the H1N1 virus have spread from Mexico to several other countries, including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Spain and U.K, and it's being investigated in Brazil, Australia, France and Israel. The disease usually affects pigs, but this variation of the virus is able to spread through human-to-human contact as well.

While it's fairly typical among flu strains there is a chance that a patient will develop a more serious respiratory illness.

In B.C., information has been sent out to doctors and emergency rooms to help medical staff diagnose the symptoms, and to take steps to isolate patients that exhibit any flu-like symptoms. It also tells them who to call if swine flu is suspected.

"We have been in touch with emergency rooms to remind them of the new normal, which has been in place since SARS. If people come in with a fever or cough they're to be kept separated," said Dr. Patrick.

The BCCDC is being cautious in reporting illnesses until they're confirmed, which is also a lesson they learned from the SARS issue.

"It may have been a mistake to talk about suspected cases in B.C. when we're at the very lowest risk," he said. "In the media we were saying there were 60 to 70 cases in the province when we only had three. Keep in mind that people are coming from a place (Mexico) where people often fall ill while travelling, we have hundreds of people landing (on Mexican flights) every day."

It appears that the incubation period for the disease is seven days or less, which should limit the spread of the virus.

"We're looking at a range from one to two days up to seven days for (exposure) to this particular virus," said Dr. Patrick.

In other words, if you haven't been in Mexico or knowingly exposed to someone with the disease in a week or more your chances of contracting swine flu are low. Most illnesses reported in the province will be other types of influenza as flu season winds down.