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Editorial: Grave warning

Skeletons from a mass grave in Martigues, 1720–1721, yielded molecular evidence for the Yersinia pestis Orientalis biotype.
Skeletons from a mass grave in Martigues, 1720–1721, yielded molecular evidence for the Yersinia pestis Orientalis biotype.

Going to funerals could be the death of us. Or, at least, so warns the Public Health Agency of Canada. The agency is being pragmatic, with a slight twist of the macabre, as it prepares for the possible impact of the next influenza pandemic.

A pandemic occurs three or four times a century, so we seem overdue in North America. It’s one of the reasons why public health officials are increasingly adamant in urging Canadians to get a flu shot each year.

While health officials have plans in place to ensure people survive a pandemic, they also have some unsettling recommendations for the nation's funeral homes to handle those who don't.

During a pandemic, funeral homes can expect to have to handle about six months’ work within a six-to-eight-week time frame. Funeral parlours in larger cities may not be able to cope with the increased demand.

It conjures up graphic images of the Black Death or bubonic plague which swept across Europe in the Middle Ages, killing millions and resulting in corpses being tossed out into the streets, followed by mass burials.

Funeral homes in Canada are being urged to make plans if their own staff gets sick, including arrangements with volunteers from service clubs or churches to dig graves. Storage space for corpses could also be a problem, so refrigerated trucks, or curling and hockey rinks, could be pressed into service.

The most recent pandemic was the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Isolated cases in North America caused considerable fear and concern. While Ebola was spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of victims or corpses, the body of someone dying from the flu is not contagious. But mourners who attend funeral homes and churches could be.

As a result, the Public Health Agency is urging provincial health officials to plan on possible restrictions on the type and size of gatherings. That would be a huge problem, especially in a province like, say, Prince Edward Island, where the average attendance at visitation is 1,000 to 1,400 people.

The health agency also recommends that funeral homes stock an extra supply of inexpensive caskets because families could experience multiple deaths, which would strain their financial resources.

We like to think that our modern health-care system makes us pretty much invulnerable to pandemics. Yet the odds are increasing for an influenza outbreak. Viruses and bacteria are becoming resistant or immune to antibiotics. Humans interact and their paths intersect on a massive scale around the globe each day by plane, train, ship and automobile. The chances of limiting such an outbreak to a single country or region is remote.

The Public Health Agency’s planning, predictions and recommendations may not be pleasant to contemplate, but we have to be ready for the worst.

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