David Butler-Jones: SARS, H1N1 and the nature of a pandemic
When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit Canada in 2003, causing widespread panic, the country didn’t have a chief public health officer. That changed in 2004, when the Public Health Agency of Canada was formed. David Butler-Jones assumed its leadership the same year.
The next big fight was against H1N1.
“It hit Canada in the spring of 2009, and we stopped it by Christmas,” Butler-Jones says. “Half the population was immunized by the holidays, unlike in the United States and Europe, where outbreaks continued through the next spring and even the following winter.”
He attributes this success to SARS. “Quite honestly, if Canada had not had SARS, we would not have been in as good a position to respond to H1N1.”
The lessons Butler-Jones and his colleagues learned were invaluable. They saw that a country’s ability to respond to a pandemic was determined by collaboration, leadership and collective action through information sharing.
The concept of “the perfect plan” is naïve, Butler-Jones says. “You can’t plan for everything. Eisenhower said that it’s not about the plan but the planning. It puts you in a better position to be able to respond.”
In the case of H1N1, Canada’s response included the creation of a collective management committee to oversee the sharing of information between its cities, provinces and federal government. It also included coordinated public outreach complete with vaccines and effective antiviral medication, along with instructions on hand hygiene and a message for people to cough into their sleeves.
“Our ability to deal with a pandemic is dependent on our underlying capacity to deal with life,” Butler-Jones says. “Our economic health, our relationship with the environment, the vulnerability of our population, the capacity of our infrastructure — it’s all intertwined and connected with our ability to respond.”
David Butler-Jones’s public talk, “Plagues and Pandemics: The Capacity to Respond,” takes place on May 29 at 6 p.m. Register today.