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| Crowds of students descend upon the bookstore. Hordes file in and out of classrooms. Throngs of young men and women cluster around each other, catching up with old friends, making new ones, coughing, sneezing, shaking hands and giving and getting the Montreal two-cheek kiss. In other words, campus is a germ-fest.
Not to be alarmist, but scientists are getting nervous about the possibility of a flu pandemic coming along soon. Historically, there are about three or four biggies each century and we're just about due.
No need to panic, though, because McGill is developing an Infection Control Committee. Pierre-Paul Tellier, director of Student Health Services and of the Office of Student Affairs in the Faculty of Medicine, is a key organizer of the committee. "If we develop a program, we can deal with whatever comes along," says Tellier.
McGill has already had to handle a few critical public health and welfare situations: the ice storm of 1997, the SARS scare in 2003, a recent meningitis outbreak in Quebec. Then there are the safe sex campaigns that have been developed over the past two decades in response to HIV/AIDS. These days, another major worry is avian flu.
In each case, Tellier notes, "Communication is a very important aspect. We have to talk to a lot of people. Information doesn't disseminate easily, and there's a lot of misinformation that we have to undo."
Tellier says the committee will use this year's flu season, which hits the elderly and children under two especially hard, as an opportunity to establish contacts for spreading quick, reliable information. They'll get the message out on how to stop the spread of viruses by washing your hands and covering your mouth when coughing. Good practice no matter what, and best to ingrain those habits before something more serious comes along.
Though avian flu, which is primarily in Asia and has rarely infected people, poses little threat to people at McGill right now, it is possible that the virus could modify and spread quickly among human populations. Tellier says that, so far, those most affected by avian flu are in their late teens and early twenties. "Because they're so young and healthy, their bodies' response to the virus is so strong, and they have a hard time dealing with the response." Ironically, their healthy response is what makes them so sick.
Any flu pandemic could affect 15 to 20 percent of a group at one time. Scary thought for a university community of thousands, which means there are many considerations for the committee. If teachers fall ill, who will fill in for them? Many of McGill's students are international, who will look after them? Should they have to refund their bursaries or scholarships? If lab technicians become housebound, who will take care of the animals? And for children of employees and students, are there backup daycare plans?
Some of the legal issues involving funding are being examined by the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ).
McGill also has to coordinate with the province. Should a widespread illness break out, would McGill be able to keep university buildings for its own use, such as for vaccination centres or would the province take over the space? Would the university's medical practitioners be called upon to perform public duties or could they treat the McGill population first?
To best consider the many facets, the committee members come from all sectors of McGill, from residences, to security services, animal resources, and the Web Communications Group. Though a virus can spread in sneaky and insidious ways, the committee's comprehensive approach will surely confound even the wiliest of infectious diseases.