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Swine Flu Chaos: Why Canada needs a National Science Advisor (Again!)

October 31, 2009

Confusion over swine flu vaccination continues in Canada. With deaths of seemingly healthy children and outbreaks popping up in different parts of the country, parents struggle with questions about the safety and availability of treatment. 

Is THIS the cause of so much strife? Image courtesy of wordpress user 'LMP'.

The Government’s line on point, has been shaky, with the Prime Minister needlessly equivocating on whether he, and his family, plan to get the vaccine.  And the Liberals, in opposition, have begun to call the government out on its handling of vaccination planning and delivery.  Conservatives respond, as  Conservative Strategist Tim Power does here on CTV,  that the opposition parties are “politicizing” the issue.

Clearly, there is a need for a credible single voice to cut through the disinformation and politics and set the record straight about swine flu, and its treatment, for Canadians.  Someone speaking for the government, but with established scientific, health or medical credentials to allow them independence from it. 

That is, we need something like the “Surgeon General” in the United States, who provides leadership and credibility to the Government’s efforts on health and medicine.  In fact, Obama’s appointee (although held up in Senate confirmation) is now being fast-tracked through Senate Confirmation because of the swine flu issue. American politicians of both Republican and Democratic stripes recognize the need for a clear voice on matters of urgent public health.

Even better than this kind of Executive Office,  would be an independent Parliamentary National Science Adviser, who reports to Parliament, rather than the Executive.  The National Science Adviser could also play a role in communicating accurate information about Canadian health care abroad– in the United States and Europe– as neither the Government, nor the opposition, seem very enamored with that responsibility.

Unfortunately, Canada has no such similar position. Well, we used to.  In 2004, then Prime Minister Paul Martin created the position of an independent National Science Adviser to “provide expert advice on the government’s role in matters of science and science policy”.  However, soon after the Conservatives came to power, Harper dismissed then National Science Adviser Arthur Carty, and eliminated the position altogether.

As confusion mounts, and shortages and delays in swine flu vaccine delivery continue, maybe now the Harper Government will rethink that decision.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2009 10:25 am

    This government does seem to have had problems with independent advisors, officers and commissioners from day one. Just ask Linda Keen and Kevin Page.

    Personally, I find it incredibly useful having people like these providing the public with information based on their expertise rather than their party affiliation. I suppose nobody is completely unbiased, and there have certainly been politically-skewed appointments (especially in the U.S.), but in general I tend to trust people like Page and our Auditor General far more than most politicians.

    As for the dangers of H1N1, I agree that they have been somewhat overblown. However, when you read about a perfectly healthy teenager dying in his father’s arms within 48 hours of getting sick, your parental instincts tend to take over. I know mine did.

    • canworldjon permalink*
      November 4, 2009 3:01 pm

      Thanks Jenny. I think your take on this, is the kind of sentiment that animated my writing it: parents want the information, and they want to be able to trust that the information is accurate; these are health matters affecting their kids. And people, not surprisingly, are hesitant to trust politicians who have a vested interest in politicking and spinning.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    November 2, 2009 12:23 pm

    This is a thought-provoking post on a tricky issue. Beyond the simple logistics of making the vaccine available to everyone who wants it, which is tricky enough in a country the size of Canada, there does seem to be a lot of uncertainty over how dangerous swine flu really is. (Personally, I suspect the threat has been massively overblown, or at least not put into proper perspective.) Combine this with downright irrational fears about the safety of the vaccine itself, and you have a real recipe for confusion.

    So do we need an independent science adviser? Well, maybe. Or maybe we just need a Health Minister who can communicate more effectively with the public. Having independent advisers try to do this can lead to unfortunate situations – have you been following the saga of the wonderfully named Professor Nutt in the UK? The basic problem, I guess, is that advisers don’t seem very independent when their opinions align with government policy (and therefore don’t add much credibility), but end up being reined in, railed against or even fired if they start saying things that are politically inconvenient.

    Having experts on tap is obviously essential, but in my opinion it’s better for them to give their advice privately to ministers rather than playing a large public role. With that said, I’d like to see the Ministry of Health raise its game. And I’d like to see the creation of a Ministry of Science to promote scientific research in Canada, and to some extent beyond.

    Here in China, by the way, official nervousness over swine flu seemed to peak in summer and has been subsiding ever since. I think it was in July that a waitress insisted on applying a thermometer to me and some friends before she would let us have dinner, which seemed a bit excessive.

    • canworldjon permalink*
      November 4, 2009 2:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Corwin! I laughed at the waitress bit; it’s nice that citizens are helping China fight this terrible disease… though I’m not sure how refusing to feed you will help stop the spread of the flu…

      In all seriousness, I think you make a great point about how much better Canadian pols could do on the health care ministry. In ways, the U.S. Surgeon General is like a Minister of Health; the position just tends to have some added prestige and credibility attached to it not so much its holder is independent from Government, but because Surgeon Generals tend to be leaders in their field and also great communicators. We seem to have a dearth of great communicators in Canadian politics these days. But I think both of are waiting for Godot, if we think a Ministry named to promote science is coming anytime soon.

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