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Sims: COVID isn’t in the rear-view mirror, much as we would like it to be



COVID-19 vaccination campaigns may not be the big news they were during the pandemic, but, to remind us the virus will be with us always, the Middlesex-London health unit is ramping up for a springtime targeted booster blitz for the most vulnerable.

COVID-19 vaccination campaigns may not be the big news they were during the pandemic, but, to remind us the virus will be with us always, the Middlesex-London Health Unit is ramping up for a springtime targeted booster blitz for the most vulnerable.

“This virus is here to stay. It is still a risk,” Alex Summers, Middlesex-London’s medical officer of health, said Friday on the eve of the third anniversary of the global pandemic’s beginnings.

The low-key arrival of the latest vaccination campaign that targets people older than 65, people living in higher-risk congregate settings and those who are severely immunocompromised comes in response to last week’s guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization for spring boosters. It also is a sign of how far we’ve come in three years since the novel coronavirus showed up worldwide and how we have learned to live with it.

The anniversary of the start of the global pandemic was Saturday. It was March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared its deep concern about the virus after announcing there were 118,000 cases of COVID-19 in more than 114 countries and 4,291 deaths.

We all know what happened after that, how the virus rapidly spread and how our lives were changed, before the speedy creation of effective vaccines. The most recent WHO data points to more than 759 million cases and more than 6.8 million deaths worldwide. Public Health Ontario reports there have been more than 1.5 million cases in the province and about 16,000 deaths.

Middlesex-London has had 48,725 reported cases and 527 deaths.

“Fortunately, the baseline immunity in the population from an amazing vaccination effort and previous infection is such that the severity is no longer overwhelming our health care system and not leading to the same amount of deaths and severe hospitalizations that it was,” Summers said.

“However, it’s still a big deal and a risk to our most vulnerable, particularly those who are older,” similar to how influenza always has been a risk to the elderly and the medically compromised, he said.

That is how we should be thinking about COVID-19 in 2023. Summers expects this fall there will be recommended annual booster doses for COVID-19 and the flu. We should expect public health messages about the importance of hand washing and staying home if ill, messages that were drilled into the community’s consciousness during the pandemic.

“Hopefully, the memories of the last three years emphasize the importance of ongoing public health principles, year in and year out,” Summers said.

There are reasons to use this anniversary as a moment to celebrate our resilience and ingenuity to push back against the spread of the disease and return to more normal lives.

Since December 2020, when the first vaccines went into arms in Middlesex-London, almost 94 per cent of people living in London and Middlesex County age 12 and older have their primary series of shots.

The health unit said that more than 1.35 million doses were given through its mass vaccination clinics, pop-up clinics at local malls, community-based clinics at schools and community centres, through the provincial government’s Go-VAXX bus and at pharmacies and health care provider offices.

“The goal was always, you know, certainly for us in public health, to protect the lives and the health of our population and that also includes the quality of life,” Summers said. “We want people be able to socialize, we want people to be able to go to concerts and go to dinners and to travel and to do those things. The objective is making life what people want their lives to be.”

That freedom, to make life what people want it to be, “can only be maintained if there’s that ongoing recognition of the things that we can do to keep it there,” he said.

That means a renewed commitment to all vaccinations, to science, to infection prevention and control, and to limiting the spread of misinformation “so that we are confident in the scientific evidence we have to protect ourselves,” Summers said.

“These types of commitments will allow for people, hopefully, to continue to live those lives that we want people to live and that they wish to live,” he said.

It’s a relief to move past the days when COVID-19 brought society to a standstill, but Summers hopes the community doesn’t forget because “that informs their commitment to these public health principles moving forward.”

Summers said any emergence of new variants, the effectiveness of the vaccine and if we can sustain immunity against the virus could change how we deal with the illness.

But now, the community knows how to push back.

“I think one of the messages I try to (reiterate) for folks is that there’s tools available to you. You’ve got to understand your risks and COVID is never going to go away. So, you’ve got to make some decisions about how you’re going to approach this now,” Summers said.


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Marburg virus outbreak in two African countries



Early this year, Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania reported outbreaks of Marburg virus disease (MVD), the first-ever outbreak of the disease in these countries. As the countries respond to the outbreaks through contact tracing and restricting movement across affected regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the risk of spread of the disease as “very high” across both countries.


Explained | The Marburg virus and the recent outbreak caused by it


The Marburg virus was first identified in 1967 during outbreaks in Germany and Serbia and is known to cause severe and fatal viral haemorrhagic fevers in humans.


The virus is closely related to another deadly virus, Ebola and is rated as a high-risk pathogen by the WHO. Marburg virus is transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals such as fruit bats, and further human-to-human transmission can occur through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected patient or contaminated surfaces resulting in outbreaks.

Since its initial detection in 1967, several outbreaks of Marburg virus have been detected between 1975 and 2023, with African countries being the most affected and often with high fatality rates up to 90%, depending on the early access to quality care.

In recent years, and for the first time, isolated cases have been reported in Guinea and Ghana in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

New outbreaks

An outbreak of unknown haemorrhagic fever linked to a funeral ceremony was reported from Equatorial Guinea on February 7, 2023, which was later confirmed as Marburg virus on February 13 by the WHO. A month later, Tanzania reported an outbreak of MVD on March 21, after the detection of eight suspected cases, five of which were fatal. The genome sequence of a Marburg virus from Equatorial Guinea was quickly made available in public domain by researchers. The sequence shows high similarity with Marburg virus genomes previously found in fruit bats, suggesting a potential zoonotic origin.

Is there a concern?

There are no approved vaccines, antivirals or monoclonal antibodies for Marburg virus yet and supportive care to manage symptoms and prevent complications forms the mainstay. However, the WHO aims to accelerate trials of some investigational vaccines. Case detection through contact tracing, molecular diagnosis and quarantine is central to managing the spread of the disease.

While the two outbreaks have triggered a rapid res- ponse to control the spread, the outbreak in Equatorial Guinea has spread to multiple provinces and has even crept into a populous city, Bata. Equatorial Guinea has, so far, reported a total of 35 con- firmed cases and 27 deaths. The large geographic spread of the infection in the country and the unidentified epidemi- ological links between many of the reported cases suggest a wider range of transmission of the virus.

The large geographic spread of the infection in the country and the unidentified epidemiological links between many of the reported cases suggest a wider range of transmission of the virus.


As the affected countries continue to make efforts to contain the disease and another country, Burundi, investigates a suspected outbreak of viral haemorrhagic fever, surveillance of emerging viral diseases is crucial to help early detection, monitoring the circulation and evolution, and develop effective diagnostics, prevention and control measures.

It is only natural that the concept of One Health is increasingly taking centre-stage.

(The authors are researchers at the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi. All opinions expressed are personal)



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A glass of wine or beer per day is fine for your health: new study



A new Canadian study of 4.8 million people says a daily alcoholic drink isn’t likely to send anyone to an early grave, nor will it offer any of the health benefits touted by previous studies, even if it is organic red wine.

Low and moderate drinkers have similar mortality rates to those who abstain entirely, researchers from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research explain. On the other hand, women who enjoy more than one standard drink per day are at least 20 per cent likely to die prematurely.

“In this updated systematic review and meta-analysis, daily low or moderate alcohol intake was not significantly associated with all-cause mortality risk,” the study’s authors write, “while increased risk was evident at higher consumption levels, starting at lower levels for women than men.”

Published Friday in the medical journal JAMA Open Network, the study comes on the heels of a report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) that said Canadians should have no more than two alcoholic drinks per week in order to minimize the health risks associated with alcohol.


Lead researcher Dr. Jinhui Zhao and his co-authors wanted to better understand the link between alcohol and all-cause death, including theories advanced by previous studies that a small amount of alcohol can provide health benefits, and that “moderate drinkers” live longer and are less likely to die from heart disease than non-drinkers.

They reviewed 107 studies from between 1980 and 2021 involving 4.8 million people and found that consuming more than one standard drink per day raised the risk of premature death significantly, especially for women.

In Canada, a standard drink is defined as a 341-ml bottle of five per cent alcohol beer or cider, a 142-ml glass of 12 per cent alcohol wine or a 43-ml shot glass of 40 per cent alcohol spirits. Each standard drink contains 13.45 grams of pure alcohol.

“There was a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality among female drinkers who drank 25 or more grams per day and among male drinkers who drank 45 or more grams per day,” the authors wrote. “Low-volume alcohol drinking was not associated with protection against death from all causes.”

When they looked at previous studies that suggest people who drink a little are less likely to die early or from heart disease than people who don’t drink at all, they found the evidence was skewed by systematic bias.

“For example, light and moderate drinkers are systematically healthier than current abstainers on a range of health indicators unlikely to be associated with alcohol use, (like) dental hygiene, exercise routines, diet, weight (and) income,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, abstainers may be statistically more likely to experience poorer health, since many have had to stop – or never started drinking in the first place – for health reasons. They also found most of the studies they reviewed overrepresented older white men in their data, failing to account for the experiences of women, racialized people and people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

When Zhao and his colleagues adjusted the data to account for these variables, they couldn’t find any evidence that drinking a low or moderate amount of alcohol had any kind of positive effect on life expectancy or heart health.

“Our meta-analysis… found no significant protective associations of occasional or moderate drinking with all-cause mortality, and an increased risk of all-cause mortality for drinkers who drank 25 g or more,” the authors conclude.

“Future longitudinal studies in this field should attempt to minimize lifetime selection biases by not including former and occasional drinkers in the reference group, and by using younger cohorts more representative of drinkers in the general population at baseline.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or mental health matters, the following resources may be available to you:

  • Hope for Wellness Helpline for Indigenous Peoples (English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut): 1-855-242-3310
  • Wellness Together Canada: 1-866-585-0445
  • Drug Rehab Services: 1-877-254-3348
  • SMART Recovery:
  • Families for Addiction Recovery: 1-855-377-6677
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868



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U of A teaming up with researchers to get people moving in a virtual gym



Game creators at the University of Alberta (U of A) teamed up with their Japanese counterparts in hopes to get more people exercising and having fun in a virtual reality game called Slice Saber.

The U of A said in a recent news release that they’re looking at things like what it sounds like when someone slices through a watermelon with a lightsabre. And after it’s been sliced, what are the physics of the watermelon cut up?

The game is one of many available on Virtual Gym, an exercise platform still in development, where gamers of all ages can slip into a virtual reality headset and try climbing mountains, a wide range of stretching, balloon popping, shooting arrows, or yes, even slicing through fruit that is flying at you in real-time.

The game’s co-creator and computing science professor Eleni Stroulia shared Virtual Gym with counterparts at the Ritsumeikan University, which according to the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies website, is the only academic organization in Japan that offers the field of game studies.


“Our Japanese colleagues proposed to make Virtual Gym more enjoyable and motivating for younger adults, which is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, where people can be stuck at home,” said Stroulia in the news release.

It’s not just sound that the team is looking to experiment with, either; they’re looking at visual effects as well as haptics, or touch effects, in the game.

Virtual Gym is being developed by a U of A computing science research team led by Stroulia and Victor Fernandez, a post-doctoral fellow in the computing science department. While it is designed to entice people to exercise, it’s also collecting game-play data which evaluates how the player is performing. It then tailors the game to their capabilities.

“In our case, we’re working with seniors who may not be able to go out to exercise, to give them an opportunity to maintain the flexibility, balance and level of activity that is good for avoiding frailty,” Stroulia said.

There is no date yet for when the platform will be released to the public.



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