I had it all ready. Prompted by news that the University of Waterloo reconsidered a much-vilified logo after students orchestrated a media campaign to protest the new design, I set out to write about UTM students and how they should view this paper as something that they can use, rather than the ramblings of a handful of journalist wannabes. The Medium, I’d write, should be a place to discuss the things that matter to them, be it the high price and the lack of diversity of food on campus or the danger of riding a shuttle bus that was designed to transport people half the size of your average UTM student.
Then I got the email. It was signed by UTM Vice-President and Principal Ian Orchard and it had been sent to every UTM student. He welcomed us back to school before warning us about the influenza A (H1N1) strain and its likely spread around our community.
The email reminded me of a conversation that I had back in early August with Dean of Student Affairs Mark Overton. You should talk about the swine flu preparations, he suggested, and I nodded, making another note in my note-cramped pad.
Researching the topic only proved Dean Overton right. A swine flu outbreak could wait until the normal flu season in December, or it could, with the aid of what the Globe and Mail last week called “incubators”—classrooms, for the rest of us—gain strength by the end of summer.
This is what seems to have happened. Swine flu has been detected in several US campuses, where classes began earlier than ours. And yesterday a 20-year-old Cornell student died from it. In such tight quarters, it is only logical to assume that such a contagious virus will kindly pay us a visit here at UTM.
Experts predicted that the virus would spread widely. They could be wrong. They also predicted that it would be benign. They could be wrong about that too. H1N1 is, after all, a new strain. Run-of-the-mill seasonal influenza comes and goes, with the virus mutating slightly from one winter to the next. But every so often a truly new influenza virus emerges, resulting in a global wave of infection known as a pandemic.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people. The latest pandemic, in 1968, killed at least one million. Studies by Lancet and the World Bank estimate that a modern pandemic of equivalent virulence could kill between 62 and 70 million people.
To be sure, modern drugs such as Tamiflu can reduce the virus’s strength. And in the age of lighting-speed communication, agencies and doctors can talk to each and coordinate efforts in a more efficient manner.
The swine flu is not expected to cause anywhere near that amount of fatalities. When fatalities do occur, they are more likely to take place among special risk groups—the elderly, chronic smokers, diabetics—in developing countries. Canada in particular seems ready: we will get the vaccine by November, perhaps December, and our health departments, along with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, have been hard at wok to ensure that the number and severity of cases are kept as low as possible.
Still, for all our scientific progress, we are still unable to predict when the virus will regroup and in what form. Its anybody’s guess, said Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health last Wednesday. Influenza is always inventive.
In other words, no one knows for sure how the swine flu is going to act.
Lest anyone accuse me of stirring panic, I will say that I hesitated before writing this editorial. The media have too often been accused of causing mass hysteria (these accusations are too often correct). But this is about informing students. UTM has already done plenty to update us and plans to do even more, with its emails, on the Health and Counselling website and on posters hanging from the walls of most washrooms. UTM has even designed a new emergency preparedness website, located at www.preparedness.utoronto.ca.
More, however, can be done. There will always be someone who doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand the actual risk, or doesn’t want to. Young people like to think that nothing will to happen to us. This editorial and the coverage we’ve given to the issue may alarm some, but if that alarm results in increased awareness, in students buying and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, sneezing into their sleeves, lining up at the two vaccination clinics that will take place between October and December and isolating themselves for the first 24 hours following flu symptoms, then it would have done some good.
Marcel Proust once said, Illness is the most heeded of doctors: to goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.
Wouldn’t it be nice to prove him wrong?