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Pandemic flu: should we care?

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In  2007, Mennonite Disaster Service, Canadian Mennonite University, and other church groups, together with the International Centre for Infectious Diseases, held Canada’s first-ever faith community summit on pandemic preparation, in Winnipeg.

At the time, some wondered why the issue should even be raised. The Spanish Flu (1918-1920), Asian Flu (1957), and Hong Kong Flu (1968) pandemics were a long time ago, people said; it could never happen again. But speaker after speaker emphasized, not only could it occur – they predicted it would take place.

“We absolutely do know there will be another pandemic,” stated Larry Bredesen, regional coordinator for emergency preparedness and response for the Public Health Agency of Canada. “We can delay it [the pandemic] by doing things like hand washing or staying home from work, church, and social events when sick,” he stated, “but we cannot stop it…the pandemic clock is ticking.”

Dr. Tim Foggin, a public health physician in B.C., who attends Willingdon Church in Burnaby, B.C., is heavily involved in pandemic flu planning in that province. Earlier this summer, he answered a few questions via email from Dan Dyck, Mennonite Church Canada director of communications.

Some people are ambivalent about the H1N1 flu pandemic. They say that many more people die each year of seasonal flu. Why should we care?

Since the H1N1 outbreak is still in the early stages, we don’t really know yet if “many more” people die of seasonal flu each year. But we do know that very few people have any immunity to H1N1. The U.S. is predicting a 40 percent infection rate. New Zealand is estimating up to 80 percent. And the main problem may not be the number of deaths, but secondary consequences, such as the breakdown of essential services (hospitals, emergency response, food chain distribution, etc.).

Some say we are overreacting. Is that the case?

If a flood is predicted, dikes are hastily constructed, homes are sandbagged. If a severe snowstorm is in the forecast, people stock up on essential supplies and stay home. During tornado warnings, experienced people seek safe cover. In hurricane season, folks shutter their homes. Are we overreacting even if the result is less severe than predicted?

But I’m fit and healthy – I don’t think it will happen to me. Why should I worry?

Even if we are not personally at risk, should we pay less attention? What would the Good Samaritan do? And even if this is not important to “you,” I can guarantee it will be important to somebody you know. We’ll all be affected.

My congregation already has enough to do without worrying about a pandemic. Why should we add another thing?

Seeking to have sufficient oil in your lamp is not “worrying.” Obeying the command to love your neighbour is not “worrying.” Will you be able to continue even your essential ministry if a third of your congregants are ill? If your entire pastoral team is ill at a time when emotional and spiritual needs are at an all-time high? If tithing declines?

Beyond Our Fears, a 4-session study guide for congregations, is available from Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Church Canada, and Mennonite Publishing Network. Participants’ guide is $6.89, leader’s guide $14.94. A resource for children, Don’t Be Afraid: Stories of Christians in Times of Trouble, is also available for $6.89.

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