How Canadian researchers are using data to track the spread of the coronavirus

TORONTO _ Canadian researchers are making advances in tracking the trajectory of viral illnesses, like the emergent coronavirus, as they try to stay ahead of any potential threat to Canada.

From global flight patterns to learning the names of individual patients, scientists say they have more ways to monitor infectious diseases than ever.

These insights are drawn from new data-driven technologies, improved communication across public- health agencies and increased transparency in reporting infections.

But as our interconnected world has made it easier to share information, it has also multiplied the opportunities for viruses to spread, said Kamran Khan, a Toronto doctor who specializes in infectious disease.

“On one hand, the world is rapidly changing, where diseases are emerging and spreading faster,” said Khan, a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital.

“On the other hand, we happen to have growing access to data we can use … to generate insights and spread them faster than the diseases spread themselves.”

The newly identified coronavirus has so far sickened close to 600 people in China and killed at least 17. Other cases have been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday that several people in Canada are under observation for signs they may have contracted the pneumonia-like illness, but that the risk to Canadians remains low.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization determined Thursday that it was “too early” to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, but cautioned that “it may yet become one.”

Khan, the founder and CEO of BlueDot, said his medical analytics company has been monitoring the virus since first detecting signs of an outbreak on Dec. 31 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where most of the early cases are concentrated.

Since the rise of commercial air travel, Khan said humans have become the key vectors, or virus carriers, driving the dispersion of diseases around the world.

BlueDot’s AI-powered system analyzes billions of data points, including airline ticket sales and online news reports, to map how viruses spread through the global transportation network and predict regions that are at the highest risk of an outbreak.

Khan said about 80 per cent of travellers from Wuhan to Canada are headed for Toronto and Vancouver, but he noted that there are no non-stop flights from the Chinese city, which means the volume of travel is relatively low.

BlueDot shares such insights with its clients across the private and public sector to keep them posted on the latest developments as an epidemic evolves, so they can co-ordinate their response, said Khan.

However, he admits that every prediction comes with some degree of uncertainty. For example, researchers are still piecing together the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, and how efficiently the virus is transmitted from person to person.

Meanwhile, laboratory networks across the country are working to make sure tests are available wherever cases may crop up, said Yoav Keynan, the scientific lead at the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases.

The coronavirus comes from same family that caused the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed at least 774 people worldwide, including 44 people in Canada.

Since then, Canada has taken steps to improve communication between provincial, federal and global public-health agencies, Keynan said.

“I think there’s a greater degree of knowledge-sharing across jurisdictions that allows us to track epidemics,” said Keynan, an associate professor in University of Manitoba’s medical microbiology department.

“Canadians should be encouraged by how much better the public-health infrastructure is compared to what it was 17 years ago.”

David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who was part of Ontario’s response to the SARS outbreak, said the new coronavirus could serve as a  “stress test” for the protocols that have been implemented since.

For example, the virus appears to be highly transmissible in health-care settings, but not outside of them.

That means overcrowded hospitals and emergency rooms could potentially become petri dishes for the infectious disease.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Fisman.

“Our infection-control game is better than it was. But we still have this problem with the physical plant of our hospitals, with our emergency rooms, where people are stuck together cheek-by-jowl, and that creates vulnerability.”

China virus outbreak may wallop economy, financial markets

By Elaine Kurtenbach

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BANGKOK _ News that a new virus that has afflicted hundreds of people in central China can spread between humans has rattled financial markets and raised concern it might wallop the economy just as it might be regaining momentum.

Health authorities across Asia have been stepping up surveillance and other precautions to prevent a repeat of the disruptions and deaths during the 2003 SARS crisis, which caused $40 billion-$50 billion in losses from reduced travel and spending.

The first cases of what has been identified as a novel coronavirus were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, suggesting animal-to-human transmission, but it now is also thought to be spread between people. As of Wednesday, more than 500 people were confirmed infected and 17 had died from the illness, which can cause pneumonia and other severe respiratory symptoms.

A retreat in financial markets on Tuesday was followed by a rebound on Wednesday, as investors snapped up bargains. Share benchmarks were mostly higher both in Asia and in Europe.

While the new virus appears much less dangerous than SARS, “the most significant Asia risk could lie ahead as the regional peak travel season takes hold, which could multiply the disease diffusion,” said Stephen Innes, chief Asian strategist for AxiCorp. “So, while the risk is returning to the market, the lights might not turn green until we move through the Lunar New Year travel season to better gauge the coronavirus dispersion.”

The 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China, along with cases of a deadly form of bird flu, resulted in widespread quarantine measures in many Chinese cities and in Hong Kong. More than 8,000 people fell sick and just under 800 people died, a mortality rate of under 10%.

While the ordinary flu kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, such new diseases raise alarm due to the uncertainties over how deadly they might be and how they might spread. That’s especially true during the annual mass travel of the Lunar New Year festival, which begins this week.

“The cost to the global economy can be quite staggering in negative GDP terms if this outbreak reaches epidemic proportions as, until this week, the market was underestimating the potential of the flu spreading,” Innes said in a report.

In China, health officials stepped up screening for fevers.  “We ask the public to avoid crowds and minimize the public gatherings to reduce the possibility of cross-infection,” Li Bin, deputy director of the National Health Commission, said Wednesday.

Just as with SARS, though, the impact of the disease is likely to fall heaviest on specific industries, such as hotels and airlines, railways, casinos and other leisure businesses and retailers, analysts said. Most declined Tuesday but rebounded on Wednesday as investors locked in profits ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. The outbreak is a boon, meanwhile, for pharmaceutical companies and makers of protective masks and other medical gear.

“If the pneumonia couldn’t be contained in the short term, we expect China’s retail sales, tourism, hotel & catering, travel activities likely to be hit, especially in the first and second quarters,” said Ning Zhang of UBS. Government efforts to offset the shock would help, but growth will likely rebound less than earlier forecast, Zhang said.

As of Jan. 17, the World Health Organization had not recommended any international restrictions on travel but urged local authorities to work with the travel industry to help prevent the disease from spreading while warning travellers who fall ill to seek medical attention.

The illness is yet another blow for Hong Kong, whose economy is reeling from months of often violent anti-government protests. The wider concern is China, where the economy grew at a 30-year low 6.1% annual pace in 2019. An interim trade pact between Beijing and Washington had raised hopes that some pressure from tensions between the two biggest economies might ease, and the latest data have showed signs of improved demand for exports.

The virus outbreak raises the risk such optimism might be premature.

“According to our analysis of the spread of the SARS virus, which so far appears very similar to 2019-nCoV (the new virus), we expect increased downward pressure on China’s growth, particularly in the services sector,” Ting Lu and other analysts at Nomura in Hong Kong said in a commentary.

The growing number of global travellers has contributed to the spread of various diseases in recent years, including Middle East respiratory syndrome, the Ebola and Zika viruses, the plague, measles and other highly contagious illnesses.

The World Economic Forum estimates that pandemics _ cross-border outbreaks like the flu that killed 50 million people a century ago _ have the potential to cause an $570 billion in annual economic losses.

The 2014-16 Ebola virus epidemic caused losses amounting to over $2.2 billion, according to the World Bank. That includes a 40% decrease in the number of working Liberians at the height of the crisis, lower exports and harvests, and costs for combating the disease.

Apart from the human tragedy, such crises gobble up resources needed for other government spending, exacting a harsh toll on the poorest economies. In Africa, the loss of health care workers to Ebola resulted in thousands more deaths of mothers and babies, hindered work on other diseases such as preventing and treating malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, reduced vaccination rates and fewer surgeries, the World Bank said in a report.

Many survivors, meanwhile, suffer from lingering effects of the illnesses and the powerful drugs used to save their lives, becoming more vulnerable to hunger and other risks.

At the same time, increasingly sophisticated tools for collecting data and analyzing are aiding efforts to prepare for and cope with severe disease outbreaks.

In 2016, the World Bank set up a $500 million rapid response insurance fund, working with the WHO and insurance companies, to combat pandemics in developing countries. The fund uses “cat bonds,” or catastrophe bonds, whose principal will be lost if the funds are needed to help deal with an outbreak. Private insurers have followed with products of their own meant to hedge against risks from such disasters.

Digital tools in insurance benefits can help employers improve employee morale & health

Digital tools in insurance benefits can help employers improve employee morale & health

NEWS PROVIDED BY

RBC Insurance

Highlights:

  • 72 per cent of working Canadians would perceive their employer more positively if their employer offered a virtual care or telemedicine solution through its group benefits, a more common belief held among millennials (78 per cent).
  • Interest in virtual care for mental health services is highest among younger Canadians (18-34), more than half of whom are likely to use it to consult mental health practitioners (53%) and for video/telephone mental health counselling (51%).
  • It’s important for employers to recognize this preference among younger working Canadians as these workers tend to rate their employer, job satisfaction and mental health significantly lower than older generations.

TORONTO, Jan. 21, 2020 /CNW/ – Three-quarters (72%) of working Canadians indicate that they would perceive their employer in a more positive light if their employer offered virtual care/telemedicine, a service which would eliminate the need to leave work or home, according to a recent RBC Insurance survey. This perception is driven mostly by younger working Canadians (18-34) who are the most likely to indicate that a virtual care offering would improve opinions of their employer (78 per cent compared to 60 per cent of those 55+). This is significant as younger working Canadians tend to rank job satisfaction, employers and mental health the lowest among all working Canadians.

“Many working Canadians face time constraints when visiting health practitioners, constraints that include wait times to see specialists like psychologists and psychiatrists, the availability of a healthcare practitioner and the ability to get time off work,” says Julie Gaudry, Senior Director of Group Insurance, RBC Insurance. “Younger Canadians are even more likely to face these types of obstacles, so by implementing innovative programs such as virtual care or telemedicine, employers can alleviate some of the challenges, which in turn can help increase employee health and morale.”

The survey also found younger Canadians are more likely to value virtual care for mental health services including consulting mental health practitioners and/or video/telephone counselling than their older counterparts. This is important since younger Canadians are also more likely to report lower levels of wellbeing and mental health than older Canadians. Among 18-34 year-olds, 57 per cent say their mental health is good or excellent, compared to 79 per cent of those older than 55.

Table – Use of virtual care for mental health services among working Canadians

Age

18-34

35-54

55+

Would use virtual care to consult mental health practitioners

53%

52%

39%

Would perceive their employer more positively if offered virtual care or telemedicine

78%

74%

60%

“With our Onward by Best Doctors program we’ve already seen the power of virtual care. It has improved access to mental health experts and shortened recovery times for plan members with mental health related disability claims,” said Gaudry. “And by using virtual mental health care to help plan members and their families address their mental health concerns earlier and faster, we can potentially prevent someone from becoming so unwell that they are no longer able to work.”

The value of digital tools extends beyond health care delivery to managing insurance benefits. Two-thirds (66%) of working Canadians indicate that they prefer a mobile app to manage and access their insurance benefits as opposed to using paper mail, telephone, or even online services. Once again, this preference is highest among younger Canadians, particularly Millennials, while less than half of Baby Boomers echo this sentiment (18-34 77%, 35-54 66% vs. 55+ 48%).

Given that nine in ten working Canadians (94 per cent) are more likely to work for an employer that cares about their overall health and wellbeing, HR leaders should look for value-add digital services when it comes to group benefits that can help promote employee morale and health, such as:

  • Making Employee Assistance Programs more accessible – Look to employee assistance programs that make support available digitally to address their most common work/life challenges (caregiving, divorce, grief, etc.) that may affect work performance.
  • Offering virtual healthcare options – Support an employee’s mental and physical health by providing access to experts and resources through virtual care such as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program that uses digital education, videos and assignments with support from a therapist to help users meet their goals.
  • Providing digital tools to make it easier to understand/use benefits Consider a mobile app that employees can use to manage insurance benefits and learn more about the services and programs available to them.
  • Personalizing wellness programs: The survey also found that the majority of working Canadians (80 per cent) report that their overall wellbeing would improve if their employer were to offer a personalized wellness programthat is customized to an individual’s specific wellness and health related interests and goals.

About the RBC Insurance Survey
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos poll conducted between May 7 and May 10, 2019, on behalf of RBC Insurance. For this survey, a sample of 1501 employed Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed. Weighting was then employed to balance demographics to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to Census data and to provide results intended to approximate the sample universe. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ± 2.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all employed Canadians aged 18+ been polled. The credibility interval will be wider among subsets of the population. All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error.

About RBC Insurance
RBC Insurance® offers a wide range of life, health, home, auto, travel, wealth, annuities and reinsurance advice and solutions, as well as creditor and business insurance services to individual, business and group clients. RBC Insurance is the brand name for the insurance operating entities of Royal Bank of Canada, one of North America’s leading diversified financial services companies. RBC Insurance is among the largest Canadian bank-owned insurance organizations, with approximately 2,900 employees who serve more than five million clients globally. For more information, please visit rbcinsurance.com.

SOURCE RBC Insurance

3 things you should always tell your travel health insurer

3 things you should always tell your travel health insurer

The excerpted article was written by LISA FELEPCHUK | Calgary Herald 

Whether your next trip has you looking forward to a special restaurant experience or an epic cycling excursion, researching and planning a vacation is usually a fun task. But once the trip is booked and before you show up at the airport to board your flight, there’s one more thing you need to do: book travel insurance. Some credit cards come with a limited amount of coverage for things like cancellations or lost luggage, but keeping yourself protected against illness and injury abroad needs to be booked separately.

We get it, travel health insurance is boring, but it is important. All it takes is one clumsy move, like tripping on the curb of the sidewalk, to wind up with a broken bone, and adding to the stress of navigating an international hospital is knowing that you’re going to have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars out of pocket. For some people, unexpected medical bills can mount to more than the original vacation price tag. Sometimes a lot more.

According to the Government of Canada, your Canadian health insurance won’t cover most international medical fees and even if it does, it’s often just a small fraction of the total bill. Don’t ever rely on this alone.

“In some countries, hospitals and clinics will not treat you if you do not have enough insurance or money to pay your bills,” explains the Government of Canada website, which also notes that the Canadian government is never responsible for your medical bills abroad.

Here are three things you should always talk to your travel health insurance provider when booking a policy for your upcoming vacation.

Pre-existing medical conditions

A pre-existing condition is just that: any medical condition big or small (heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation, diabetes, cancer or even sleep apnea) that you have been diagnosed with by a medical practitioner. If you have a pre-existing condition, you may need to shop around to find the best rate, but many companies will still offer coverage as long as your diagnosis is considered stable before you travel.

But here’s the murky part: the definition of “stable” varies from provider to provider and the amount of time you need to be in this stability period also varies. Some providers will require you to be stable for 90 days before departure while others have shorter windows, like 60 or 30 days.

As with booking all travel health insurance, be honest and upfront with your broker before booking. If you don’t disclose a pre-existing condition, then drink a few too many margaritas and wind up in the ER with an abnormal heartbeat, chances are you’ll be paying for that doctor’s time on your own dime.

Outstanding or upcoming medical appointments

Another important piece of information to disclose to your travel insurance broker: pending medical tests and appointments. If, for example, you’re travelling to Mexico in March, but have a CT scan of your abdomen scheduled for April, any related health issues to your abdomen that arise while out of country could be void of coverage. Always be transparent and discuss upcoming medical tests that your doctor has requested with your broker.

The countries you’re planning on travelling to

Aside from your medical history, your travel insurance provider will also need to know the country or countries you’re going to visit. If the Government of Canada has issued a Travel Advisory for your destination, your provider might void your policy. Make sure to disclose all of the places you plan to travel to and be aware of all government-issued travel advisories and warnings.

Edited for ILSTV

What you should know about health care for international workers & students

Santiago Guzmán · for CBC N.L.

Picture this: you just finished grocery shopping for the week. Standing in front of the glass door that leads to a crowded parking lot in St. John’s, you see a not-so-scary snowstorm coming before you.

Luckily, you’re just a couple of metres away from the bus stop, so it shouldn’t be that bad. You don’t take the bus regularly because of its lack of efficiency — sometimes it’s easier and faster to walk, instead of waiting for an extra half hour.

This time, the bus is your best bet. Plus, the bus will leave you almost in front of your door. Sounds like a well-thought-out plan.

You’re trying to be positive. Although this is not your first winter in Newfoundland and you know how to deal with it, sometimes it’s hard to keep yourself positive. Kudos to you.

Now that you’ve made a plan, you put your groceries on the floor to prepare yourself to face this winter crusade: you pull out your mittens, put your warm hat on, cover your mouth and nose with your bulky scarf.

You walk through the glass door.

You can feel the immediate change in temperature and the wind. You start walking slowly, aware of the slippery street, balancing the grocery bags you’re carrying. It seems like there is enough salt on the floor to protect you from sliding, and the bus stop is barely 60 metres away.

Slip.

Your right boot swiftly slides on an icy spot that the salt didn’t cover. Miraculously, you juggle the grocery bags, as though you were on a tightrope above a hungry shark waiting for its prey to fall.

You find your balance and stand still for a second. That was close!

You let a laugh out, take a deep breath and try all over again.

Now you’re sitting on the barely cleared sidewalk with all your groceries around you. No laughs this time.

Instead, slow tears that freeze as they fall down your face. Your ankle. Despite the cold making your body feel numb, you can feel pain. Deep, sharp, acute pain. It’s broken, you know it.

In the distance, you see the bus arrive, its passengers get out while some others hop on, and you’re still on the ground in pain. No bus, no groceries, no laughs, but a broken ankle and the fear of having to go to the doctor.

No, you’re not afraid of needles, and prescriptions — you’re afraid to have to pay fully for the medical service in ER.

The answer I’ve always encountered is ‘you’re not eligible.’

You don’t have health coverage.

You really don’t know why you’re crying now: if it’s the pain of your broken ankle or of depleting your minimum wage savings to pay the medical bills.

READ MORE HERE from CBC News

 

 

Holiday Cookies: Recipe for peanut butter and jelly cookies

Peanut butter cookies — with that iconic crosshatch pattern pressed into their tops — are a holiday classic for many Canadians. But as good as they are, we decided to play with the tradition a bit. We spiked our peanut butter cookies with a “jelly” of finely chopped golden raisins. We also ditched the flour in favour of upping the peanut flavour.

The result is a slightly sweeter and delightfully chewy take on this holiday cookie. And of course we kept the crosshatch.

———

PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY COOKIES

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 cup golden raisins

1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar

15-ounce jar natural peanut butter

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment.

In a food processor, combine the granulated sugar and golden raisins, then pulse until chopped to small pieces, but not a puree.

In a medium bowl, beat together the brown sugar, peanut butter, eggs, vanilla and salt until thoroughly mixed. Mix in the sugar and raisins until evenly distributed.

Working in batches, scoop 1 tablespoon-sized balls of dough onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between cookies. Use a fork to make crosshatch design on the top of each cookie, slightly flattening them in the process. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes, or until light golden brown.

Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely. Allow the baking sheet to cool between batches. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Nutrition information per cookie: 130 calories; 60 calories from fat (46 per cent of total calories); 6 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 17 g carbohydrate; 1 g fibre; 14 g sugar; 3 g protein; 35 mg sodium.

BY ALISON LADMAN, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ice Cream Cone Caramel Date Bars
Photograph by: AP Photo, Matthew Mead

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