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Dr. Lisa Barrett on bird flu, COVID-19 boosters and strep A


The United States called for nationwide plans this week to quickly test and treat humans during a bird flu outbreak, and infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett says Canada also has similar measures available to monitor and detect the virus.

Barrett told CTV Atlantic's Todd Battis during an interview Wednesday that Canada is increasing measures to make sure the country is aware of emerging viruses and bacteria in both animal populations and humans.

“There is a surveillance system, but always it’s one of those things that can be seen as not as important sometimes, in peace times if you will,” she says. “We do have a system, we do need to be very vigilant and it also helps if the public is aware that we need to have participation in these surveillance programs, both for animals with farmers as well as for people.”

The H5N1 bird flu is spreading among dairy cattle throughout the United States, including Idaho and Michigan, two U.S. states on the border with Canada.

Barrett says H5N1 is “quite contagious” and can spread from animals to humans very quickly.

“That’s a shift from what we’re usually immune to and that means that with little immunity and a big dose of infectiousness we can be at risk for, again, a pandemic-potential virus and that’s not what we want," she says. "This is not a panic, but we are saying please be aware that if people come to you with advice around vaccination, and helping us keep a surveillance system in place as scientists and as doctors, please, please help us out there.”

Barrett joined CTV Atlantic virtually from Vancouver where she was presenting at a conference.

Some of her presented work at the conference included how patients in Nova Scotia are being treated if they have a long COVID-19 infection.

“Not long COVID, but actual infection in people who have compromised immune systems," she says. "We’ve taken a very active and organized approach in Nova Scotia to that and that’s some of the findings that we’re sharing here.”

Barrett says the scientific community in Canada who are experts on infectious diseases and medical microbiology are very collegial.

They planned on sharing their ideas during the conference to figure out how they can help each other to make care better.

“We might think that COVID is done with, but unfortunately we need to develop some better therapies and awareness, and that’s exactly what we’re going to try and help to do.”

The New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island governments launched their spring COVID-19 vaccine campaigns last month, encouraging people with a high-risk of illness due to COVID-19 to get a booster shot.

While some people may be hesitant to get another dose of the vaccine, Barrett encourages it.

“If you are somebody with a bad immune system, or you have lots of medical problems and you’re older, we do recommend that you get that spring dose of vaccine,” she says. “Just because it’s there don’t take it for granted. It is still something that is keeping people out of hospital. We know our vaccines continue to improve immune responses to COVID.”

Aside from COVID-19, Barrett says RSV and influenza has also been prevalent in Nova Scotia this spring.

“But also there was a bacterial infection, group A strep, skin infections that could lead to very serious overall whole body infections that get serious quickly that Dr. Strang had talked about a few weeks ago,” she says. “(We) haven’t seen that get more frequent, but certainly we are still seeing those in the communities.”

Barrett says if people have skin problems that look like infections they should seek medical attention early, and fast.

“Really and truly, it is a matter of taking some control of you own health and being mindful of when you’re not well. Trying to stay away from others if you’ve got a respiratory virus, I keep saying that but it’s true! Don’t head to the big group outing with your family if you’re not feeling well,” she says.

Barrett adds that many of her colleagues both at the conference and in the field are tired four years into the pandemic, and because the health system is stretched thin.

“We’re going to need some help sorting that out, not just from an infection perspective, but from a health perspective, so (there’s) optimism, resilience I think I’m seeing a lot of today, but also a real need for us to be very active in voicing that some solutions have to come up with the health system in general, or we’re going to see some very tired people starting to leave the field, I think, but lots of hope too.”

With files from CTV Atlantic's Todd Battis and Top Stories


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