Saturday, October 31, 2009

Swine Flu - From Rare to Real

A family suffers unspeakable pain, a community grieves. When 13-year-old Evan Frustaglio suddenly passed away on Monday morning from H1N1, shock and disbelief pervaded the city. How could a strong, healthy, vibrant young boy be swept from life so abruptly? Like losing a loved one in a fatal accident, there is no way to come to terms with such a tragedy. The family photo on the front page of the Toronto Star today depicts an image of utter despair, a feeling that will never be wiped from their hearts.

My son is the same age as Evan and they went to the same school for seven years. During their junior years Evan used to come for lunch from time-to-time and I recall his enthusiastic nature and sociable manner—a delightful boy with a wide smile and beautiful brown eyes. His parents were devoted, community-oriented people—always warm and friendly in the schoolyard and no doubt in Evan’s sports world as well. For all who know this family in one way or another, the heartbreaking loss hits home. This could be anyone’s family, anyone’s son or daughter.

When I saw Evan’s father on CTV last night, his pain was palpable. “Evan was my best friend,” he said, trying to hold back tears. “My 13-year-old son was my best friend.” Paul Frustaglio’s life will never be the same and, as much as we would like to stop his pain, there is nothing we can do.

What happened to Evan highlights the reality of this pandemic. In Margaret Wente’s recent article Help! I've come down with Swine Flu Overkill Ms. Wente says that we are far too panicked about the Swine Flu and that we really should get a grip.

“Ever since the spring, when the World Health Organization declared swine flu to be a “pandemic” – after just 144 deaths – SFO has been running rampant. Ordinary pandemics kill at least a million people worldwide. Swine flu has killed around 5,000 people, including 86 in Canada. Worldwide, ordinary seasonal flu kills 700 to 1,400 people a day.”

When I first read the article, I agreed with her. Let’s not get crazy over this, I thought. Let’s take measured precautions like washing hands constantly, wearing gloves, and using anti-bacterial gel as often as possible. I even thought of wearing gloves when grocery shopping since I learned that one of the worst germ transmitters is the handle of the shopping cart. But I wasn’t sure about the vaccine. There has been so much controversy about it that I wasn’t convinced we should get it. Evan’s passing and two other children's subsequent deaths have made me think again.

Given the shortage of supply, the government is now saying that it will take until Christmas for everyone to be vaccinated. Even those in the high risk groups are faced with long waits. Ironically, high risk does not include teens or children over the age of six.

I've come to see the social responsibility of getting the shot (as well as waiting until the most vulnerable have received it). Not only are we protecting ourselves from the virus, but we are protecting others from getting it from us. Evan’s family didn’t have the opportunity because the vaccine was not yet available. To decline the shot and then lose a child to the virus would only deepen the agony, if that’s even possible.

Polls this week indicated that fewer than half of Canadians intend to get the shot despite the current frenzy. The problem is that we can't make an informed decision because we won't know the true benefits and risks until sometime in the future. The bottom line is that we don’t understand this virus. The medical community doesn’t seem to understand it either. Some medical practitioners are getting vaccinated because they have been mandated to, not because they believe it will help.

In the Toronto Star article, Dr. Arlene King, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health is quoted saying this: “The sequencing has been established...clearly the younger people are experiencing a higher burden of illness, but by and large it doesn’t result in serious complications. This (Evan’s death) is rare, this is a very rare occurrence.”

This may be a rare occurrence, but when a child dies so quickly, so unexpectedly, in your neighbourhood, the tragedy is upfront and real. When the person to whom this “rare occurrence” occurred is the precious child of people you identify with, the word “rare” takes on a different meaning. “Rare” becomes “real” and you know the same thing can happen to you or your loved ones at any time.

I agree with Margaret Wente when she says, “the last thing I want to do is wind up in hospital, where MSRA, C. difficile, and other hospital-acquired infections kill around 8,000 Canadians a year. My advice is that whatever you do, stay out of the hospital – or you might get really sick.”

To all my readers: While considering the shot, wash your hands constantly, wear gloves, reduce your stress (at least try!), love your family and your friends, and be nice to everyone—including yourself!


  1. It's incredible what a roller-coaster ride we've been through this week, from messages that we're irresponsible if we don't get shots, to six-hour lineups (sometimes leading to those in line being turned away) to vaccine shortages and three-week delivery delays. ("But don't panic," we're told.)

    I called the flu hotline a few days ago. The funniest part of the conversation was being told earnestly how lucky we are to live in Toronto, "because in some municipalities they're making people call to get an appointment for the shot." Imagine that -- those poor people who have a specific appointment time rather than having the joy of waiting in the cold and rain with their children for hours!

    Looks like we're in times of real uncertainty, and it will be weeks, maybe months, until things start to calm down. And over it all is the face of a thirteen year old boy who shouldn't have died.

  2. One more precaution is gargling with salt and water. Since the flu bug enters through the mouth or nose, keeping the mouth and throat antisceptic can prevent it from propogating.