Body bags disrupt Canada's flu-readiness message

WINNIPEG, Manitoba Wed Sep 16, 2009 5:41pm EDT

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The Canadian government sent body bags to some remote Indian reserves as it prepared for the winter flu season, sending a jarring message at odds with its promise that it's ready for the H1N1 flu.

The body bags went to some reserves in Manitoba, the western province in which some remote Indian communities were hard-hit by the flu in the spring, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said on Wednesday.

"It is very disturbing," Aglukkaq told reporters on a conference call. "It's a serious issue and it's very concerning to me."

Aglukkaq said she didn't have details of the body-bag shipments and has ordered officials to investigate.

At least four Manitoba reserves received body bags from Canada's health department in shipments that also included supplies like masks and hand sanitizer, the Winnipeg Free Press said.

"This says to me they've given up," the newspaper quoted Chief David Harper of Northern Manitoba's Garden Hill reserve, which received some of the body bags, as saying.

Sending body bags is "a totally unnecessary thing," said chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones.

Canada, a country of 33.6 million people, has ordered 50.4 million doses of vaccine and plans to begin immunizations in November. If Canada doesn't need all its order, it will leave some vaccines available for other countries, Butler-Jones said.

Government officials aim to first distribute H1N1 vaccine to pregnant women, people living in remote communities, people with chronic health conditions and health-care workers.

"The whole population can be immunized very quickly," Butler-Jones said.

The flu, now a worldwide pandemic, has killed 76 people in Canada.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel; editing by Janet Guttsman)

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