Links, News, Miscellaneous

Defining Moments Canada is a Canada-wide clearinghouse for Spanish flu stories and school-based local history projects. The ambitious website includes teaching resources and instruction in research and story-telling skills. There will be a contest for classroom digital products memorializing local experiences of the Spanish flu. Defining Moments Canada is designed to bring innovative digital learning processes to bear on different themes; this is its inaugural year. Given an exciting roster of staff, contributors and advisors, this cutting-edge history project will, I predict, be hugely involving and popular.


At the Canadian Immunization Conference
Ottawa, December 4–6, 2018

Twenty Thousand Leagues Over My Head

An humanist I, without Science, but for the odd word or phrase. I’m not proud of that. I took those useless Humanities courses in college: English, History, Philosophy. Now, it turns out those disciplines have made all the difference for me, but that is another story.

What was I thinking, then, attending the Canadian Immunization Conference, rubbing shoulders with six hundred scientists? This year’s get-together, a biennial collaboration of The Canadian Association for Immunization Research, Evaluation and Education, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Public Health Agency of Canada, unfolded at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa. Pharmaceutical companies were the sponsors, and their high-energy sales forces worked the booths.

I’m not too proud to get on a new learning curve. I applied for and was readily given a media pass, for which a big thank you to the organizers. I gave as the name of my organization It’s an organization for sure — of ideas.

There were academic virologists; scientists with big pharma vaccine makers; public health workers who make real-life decisions about vaccination; Health Canada scientists. Basically it comprised two groups, a Health Canada scientist told me: academics and public health people. Attendance was about 90 percent women, according to one plenary session speaker. The best and brightest, studying, inventing, all in the public interest, now getting together to share their discoveries — such was the tenor of it.

The level of discourse was Olympian, way, way over my head. Upbeat speakers spoke an erudite scientific vernacular; several discoursed seemingly off-the-cuff, at length; some elicited considerable reaction in Q and As, discussing matters of which I understood only the broadest summaries. For the animations of little “H”s and little “N”s and what they do, and one that showed how viruses get inside us, so thoughtfully provided by a few speakers, I was profoundly grateful.

One hundred fifty three charts were deployed in the main hall at the Shaw Centre. Each looked the size of a small billboard, covered with text and graphics in multious colours. They were dazzling in their complexity. Why didn’t I finish that Statistics course? I just stared, slackjawed, as if beholding a miracle. The fate of our species may be encoded on one of those charts.

It happened that the super-scientific topics bore on subjects much in the news these days, so there was quite a bit to hook onto, after all.

One lively topic was the continuing evolution of vaccines preventive of influenza, especially for seniors. The new high-dose flu shot is predicted to help especially the “very frail” cohort, over 84, whose immune systems are increasingly likely to collapse with advancing age. The high-dose vaccine has only three viruses (the regular has four), and it met with wide scepticism at the outset of the flu season.

The resistance to vaccination in a sizeable segment of the population was another issue the people of Science were grappling with that also draws me in as a consumer — I who notched a flu shot and the two new Shingrix shingles shots this year. The huge and baffling issues raised by antivaxxers was dwelt on by Paul Bramadat, Professor and Director, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, in a gloves-off plenary presentation on Public Health in an Age of Anxiety. Language is weaponized; governments cannot be trusted; conspiracy theories abound. Our very sense of reality is crumbling. All we believed to be real turns out to be constructions, hiding the actions of the powerful. I thought he hit the ball out of the park.

At a breakfast meeting I sat next to Lionel Budry, a scientist with GlaxoSmithKline in Quebec City. His company made Shingrix. Lionel was outgoing and able to talk on the Humanities side about these issues. (And English was his second language. Sheesh.) Lionel affirmed that he was going to the film on the Spanish Flu, Unmasking Influenza, so I said I would look for him there.

The room where the film was to be shown turned out to be already full, and a line formed of people who were ultimately disappointed. I wondered why the organizers provided enough seats for only a quarter of the conferees. Wouldn’t they want the most people to be exposed to its message about the benefits of vaccination? One of the organizers said the film would be available to watch on CPAC, the parliamentary channel, that day (but harrumpf, it went up only three days later). Lionel, it turned out, also missed the film — but he turned out to have a turn in it (starting at 27:33), with some edgy lines of narrative. Was I impressed? That would be an understatement.

The film Unmasking Influenza can be viewed on the CPAC website. It’s really good! Pitched to lay people. Like me.

In my next life: Science.