OTTAWA An outbreak of swine flu in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, would not be as serious as the 2003 SARS epidemic, in part because authorities have been preparing for decades to fight widespread influenza, a senior provincial medical official said on Friday.
Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infectious disease prevention and control at Ontario's public health agency, said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the swine flu was sensitive to anti-viral drugs.
A deadly swine flu has broken out in Mexico, killing at least 16 people and raising fears of an epidemic. The virus has been linked to a new kind of swine flu contracted by seven people in California and Texas, which border Mexico.
The Geneva-based U.N. agency WHO said it was in daily contact with U.S., Canadian and Mexican authorities and had activated its command and control center for acute public health events.
Thousands of Canadians take Mexican vacations every year.
A spokesman for the public health authority in Toronto, Ontario -- Canada's largest city -- said there had been no reported cases so far.
The 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, killed 44 people in Canada, the highest death toll outside of Asia. Most of those killed lived in Ontario, which is home to about 13 million people.
"Influenza is different from SARS. Unlike SARS, where we really didn't know what we were dealing with, influenza is something that we have spent literally years, if not decades, planning for," Gardam said.
"We've been doing a lot of work in this country preparing people for something like this," he told the CBC.
Preparations included stockpiling anti-viral drugs as well as warning people to wash their hands frequently and to cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
"This particular virus is actually sensitive to the anti-viral drugs that people have been stockpiling over the last several years," he said.
Gardam said flu viruses mutated constantly and that the swine flu was another mutation.
"A virus like this might have the potential to spread more widely that the usual flu viruses. It doesn't, however, mean that it will necessarily be more dangerous than your regular flu viruses," he said.
He added: "We're not treating this like SARS at this point, where we're telling people to be quarantined or isolated," he said.
Gardam said that if there were an increase in flu cases in Canada, they would most likely be linked to Mexico and the United States.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Scott Anderson)