The Science of Health
- Is there a monster under the bed?
- The Other Odourless, Invisible Gas That Could Kill You
- A promising Ebola vaccine
- 10 Reasons Toys End up on Health Canada’s Naughty List
- When you have food allergies, who do you call? (Hint: It's not Ghostbusters!)
- Investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness
- Pregnant women exposed: Research reveals surprising results
- Turn That Thing Down!
- Testing cattle semen… this is a job for the CFIA
- CFIA scientists seek the Barcode of Life
- The rise of the tick
- DIY Biology: From Basement to Biolab
- CFIA scientist traps elusive invasive beetles with sexy insect perfume
- Why some communities adjust the level of fluoride in drinking water
- Uncharted Territory in Zika Virus Research
- Field Epidemiologists: Disease Detectives of Public Health
Good science supports good health.
Scientists study ‘stuff’ that might turn into useful technology or treatments for disease in the years to come. Their progress can be slow but their work is immensely important to the quality of our lives and those of future generations.
Anything from big black holes in deep space, to brain research and its relevance to Alzheimer’s, can impress us, inspire us and even change the way we live.
Science is intrinsically relevant to human life.
Canadians rely on the strong foundation of science and research in the partners of the Government of Canada’s Health Portfolio (Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board) to help protect and improve their health. Health Canada, for example, has more than 160 research scientists working in 50 laboratories in 15 locations across the country. Over 200 scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada, over 900 scientists at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and more than 13,000 researchers supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research round out the scientific arm of the Health Portfolio. From coast to coast to coast, Health Portfolio scientific expertise and its applied science activities, such as food safety, plant and animal health, disease tracking, and compliance testing of consumer products, contributes to decisions about health standards, health policy, regulations and health programs.
Also, research and applied science are used to help develop the portfolio's policies and programs.
The work of Health Portfolio scientists and researchers helps influence decisions about diseases, hazardous substances, food and drugs, consumer products, tobacco and much more. It also allows the Health Portfolio to:
- anticipate and respond to public health risks posed by diseases, environmental hazards, food and other threats;
- verify that the drugs, food, medical devices and other therapeutic products available to Canadians are safe and effective; and
- provide information to Canadians to help them make informed decisions about their health.
In this blog you can read about the Health Portfolio’s science and research activities, explore opportunities for professional development, and find out about our partnerships and how we invest in research. You can also access reports or publications related to the scientific activities and discover the faces and places that make science happen throughout the Health Portfolio.
- Susan Demaray
Is there a monster under the bed?
Health Canada's own Christine Levesque storing house dust samples at the lab in Ottawa.
The far corner under the bed may be one of the safest places in most homes for house dust to hang out. But still, it was not safe from Health Canada researchers who wanted to know what’s in dust anyway?
Curious about whether dust contains harmful chemicals that could build up over time, Health Canada launched the Canadian House Dust Study led by Dr. Pat Rasmussen, who sampled dust bunnies from over 1,000 homes in 13 cities across the country.
One of the first contaminants researchers looked at was lead. Lead is a highly toxic metal that is found naturally in the earth's crust. It is used to produce many consumer products (like pipes, cars, electronics and batteries). Lead was once used in products like paint and gas, but the Government of Canada now restricts its use in many products.
Everyone is exposed to low levels of lead through food, drinking water, air, dust, soil and some consumer products. But ongoing exposure to lead may be harmful to your health.
The results from the study provide us with a better understanding of the background levels of lead that Canadians may be exposed to in their homes. Health Canada has not yet set reference levels for lead in house dust, so the measurements are an important starting point for future research related to lead exposure in indoor environments.
All of the homes tested had some levels of lead that could be measured in their house dust, but most homes (90%) had normal levels for a typical city environment. Higher lead levels were mostly found in older homes, mainly because of the lead paint used when they were built.
The best way to reduce lead exposure in your home is to keep the dust bunnies away. The highest levels of lead were found in entryways, suggesting it’s tracked in from the outside. So, use a damp mop or cloth to clean, and vacuum your doorways regularly to help prevent lead and other unwanted chemicals from getting too far into your home! Dusting, vacuuming and wet-mopping the rest of your house regularly will help keep dust levels down in your home.
We’re not done looking at dust. Now that the samples have been tested for lead, Health Canada researchers are looking for traces of other metals including zinc, cadmium and nickel and contaminants like sulphides, carbonates and organic carbon compounds.
This study attracted the attention of the curators at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture who decided to include some of Dr. Rasmussen’s work in their 2012 exhibition: Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture. The show examined the complexity of today’s interrelated and emerging health problems along with a variety of proposed architectural and urban solutions.
If you’re concerned about lead in your home, learn more about how to reduce your exposure to lead.
- Susan Demaray
The Other Odourless, Invisible Gas That Could Kill You
A couple of weeks ago, we posted about monsters lurking under your bed. You may also be familiar with the dangers of carbon monoxide (spoiler alert - You can’t smell or see carbon monoxide, but it is deadly and you should have a detector).
Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when the uranium in soil and rock breaks down. It is invisible, odourless and tasteless. When radon is released from the ground into the outdoor air, it is diluted and is not a concern. However, in enclosed spaces, like homes, it can sometimes accumulate to high levels, which can be a risk to the health of you and your family.
Studies show that it’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer after cigarettes. Health Canada estimates that 16% of lung cancer cases among Canadians may be caused by radon.
All homes and buildings have some radon; the question is how much? The good news is that once a house is tested, lowering the radon levels is fairly easy.
There are a number of ways to reduce radon in your home but one of the most common ways is by installing an active soil depressurization system, which uses a pipe and exhaust fan to release the gas. This prevents radon from building up in the home.
Health Canada scientists Mathieu Brossard, Renato Falcomer and Jeff Whyte were curious about whether or not Canada’s cold climate would affect these systems, which typically involve a pipe that goes from under the basement, up through the house and out the roof.
In 2009, radon measurements taken near Maniwaki, Quebec on the Kitigan Zibi Anishabeg (KZA) reserve showed almost half the houses had radon concentrations above the Canadian radon guideline.
As Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada worked with the KZA community, the researchers were able to test various fan and discharge locations, such as the above-roof-line and side-wall systems. Since the side-wall system is cheaper and easier to install, the researchers wanted to see if it could be as effective as the standard system at reducing radon. They also wanted to see which system could cut it when it came to potential snow and ice build-up in our long, cold Canadian winters.
Caption: Illustration of two different depressurization systems for lowering radon levels. On the left, a side-wall system. On the right, an above-roof-line system.
As published in Health Physics in February 2015, the results from the KZA community showed that a side-wall discharge and indoor fan was able to reduce the radon as effectively as above-roof-line discharge, with the added advantage of being less prone to ice build-up, more affordable to install, and involving a less invasive pipe layout than the above-roof-line system.
Health Canada now includes this information in its mitigation guide. This information is also being considered for inclusion in national standards related to radon for new and existing construction, which are currently under development.
CAPTION: Health Canada scientists Renato Falcomer and Steven Reid setting up continuous radon monitors near an exhaust outlet in a field study in Ottawa, Ontario.
Health Canada continued radon research with scientists from the Radiation Protection Bureau recently conducting a field study measuring radon levels in roughly 50 homes in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. All homes had a radon reduction system installed with indoor-mounted fans and side-wall discharge. These homes now have radon levels below the guideline. The average radon reduction of 90.7% confirms that the side-wall system is very effective. The results of this study will be posted as a summary on the Health Canada website in the coming months.
The average radon mitigation process, usually done by a contractor, will cost between $1500 - $3000.
So now that we enter the coldest time of the year, it’s time to buy a test and find out if YOU have radon!
For More Information:
A promising Ebola vaccine
In March 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa. With no previous outbreaks in this region, it had been three months from when the outbreak started until it was detected and by that time it had already spread to two other countries. From the start, the scale of this event tested the world’s ability to respond to and control an outbreak which would require coordination and collaboration of many international stakeholders.
Dr. Gary Kobinger and the special pathogens team at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg were well practiced to respond. Spearheaded by biologist Allen Grolla, they pioneered and refined a mobile laboratory system that they have used in more than a dozen outbreaks around the world since 2003. It was put to good use during the Ebola epidemic, with the NML sending 24 teams of experts to as many as three sites at a time and testing more than 5500 samples in total over 15 months.
Other preparations that had also been going on well before the outbreak started include the development of the Ebola experimental vaccine, known as VSV-EBOV and a treatment called ZMapp™ made up three different antibodies, two of which were discovered at the NML. Results from the testing of both products during this outbreak are extremely promising.
The process to create the vaccine involves inserting a single gene taken from the surface of the Ebola virus in place of a gene in an animal virus called vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV). When administered, the vaccine trains the immune system to react quickly and beat the infection. Even though it uses a component of the Ebola virus, the vaccine does not contain any live Ebola virus.
A timeline of the development of Canada’s Ebola Vaccine
Prior to the West Africa outbreak, studies by both the NML and American collaborators had progressed to a point where human grade vaccine was manufactured for human trials. By having this vaccine already on hand and donating it to the WHO and others for clinical trials, the Public Health Agency enabled trials to begin rapidly and eventually having a promising impact on the outbreak.
There are a number of trials continuing in Africa, one of which uses a ring vaccination model - when a patient is suspected of having Ebola, the medical team creates a “protective ring” of immunity by vaccinating everyone around the patient (friends, neighbours and family) to stop the transmission. The NML team continues to track the results of what is a promising vaccine.
In 2010, the Public Health Agency of Canada licensed the vaccine to BioProtection Systems Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of NewLink Genetics Corporation. NewLink is now working with Merck and government regulatory agencies to get the vaccine cleared for routine use in situations of need.
The Ebola vaccine development is a concrete example of how Agency scientists are helping keep Canadians safe and healthy in a more complex and open world.
To learn more about the Ebola vaccine, visit the Agency’s website.
10 Reasons Toys End up on Health Canada’s Naughty List
At Health Canada, we give Santa a hand by testing toys in our high-tech Product Safety Laboratory. All elves making toys must obey the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, meaning that no one can make, import, sell or advertise a product that could be dangerous to our health or safety.
To do this, we put toys to the test all in the name of science and safety. And sometimes, a toy just doesn’t make the grade.
So here are 10 reasons that toys could end up on Health Canada’s naughty list.
1. They are too flammable
This doll is not having a great day. Her hair must not catch fire when exposed to flame for one second. If the hair does happen to catch fire, the fire must put itself out within two seconds of the doll being moved away from the flame.
2. They are covered with paint that contains unsafe chemicals
This dog and abacus have had their paint scraped off, to be tested in our chemistry lab. Toys that have a surface coating (e.g., paint) containing unsafe amounts of lead, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, barium or mercury are not permitted. These chemicals in paint can poison children if they are eaten.
3. Their eyeballs come off
For photo ops and demonstrations, Health Canada has been testing this tough guy for over 20 years, and his eyeballs are still intact. For the eyes and noses of dolls and stuffies, a load of 9 kilograms (20 pounds) is suspended from the eye or nose for 5 minutes. Ouch!
4. They are too loud!
It’s no secret that loud noises for long periods can harm your hearing. At Health Canada, we know just how dangerous loud toys can be, and we test them to make sure they aren’t too loud. Toys must not make noise that exceeds 100 decibels when measured at the distance the toy would ordinarily be from the ear of the child when in use. For example, we are measuring this toy phone from a very close distance, while a toy lawnmower might be measured from a longer distance.
5. They contain small loose parts
Kids under the age of three put almost everything in their mouths. Because of this, we do special tests for any toy that might be used by babies and toddlers. If any part of a toy for a small child can fit in the small parts cylinder above (like the plastic eye shown in the photo), we will send a toy straight to the naughty list. Often toys for older children that have small parts will have a choking hazard warning or a label that shows the toy is not for young children.
6. They are an airway roadblock
Rattles must be made so that no parts can pass all the way through the hole in the centre of this rattle test gauge. Any rattle that fails could block a baby’s airway, which will definitely land a toy on the naughty list. The rattle in the picture is passing this test!
7. They break when dropped
For our drop test, we drop a toy four times onto a tile-covered concrete floor. If a toy will be used by a child under three years of age, we drop from a height of 1.37 m (4.5 feet), and from 0.91 m (3 feet) if it is likely to be used by a child aged three or older.
Each time, we drop the toy from a different angle, and we try our best to make these toys break by choosing the angle we think will do the most damage. After the drop test, each toy is inspected for dangers like sharp points, sharp edges and detached small pieces.
8. They are too pointy
This device allows us to test any points on a toy, or any parts that have broken off of a toy, to make sure they are not sharp enough to pierce the skin. This green plastic piece broke off a toy when it was dropped (see 7. They break when dropped). The red light in the gauge in this photo shows that this piece is too sharp!
9. They have sharp edges
This is also a toy that broke after it was dropped (see 7. They break when dropped). We tested it to see if the broken edge was sharp. For this test, the texture of the special tape that we use is similar to skin, so if there is a tear in the tape, it means the edge is sharp enough to cut skin. And that’s a no-no for toys!
10. They have parts that break off too easily
The push/pull test uses a push or pull force of 44.5 newtons that is gradually applied over 5 seconds, and then held for 10 seconds. We do this on any part of a toy that could become detached or damaged. After each test, the toy is inspected for problems like detached small parts (if it’s a toy meant for children under 3 years of age), sharp points and sharp edges.
We’d like to offer our best wishes for a wonderful and safe holiday season from all of our lab analysts in the Product Safety Laboratory and here’s to hoping for an empty naughty list in 2016!
Come on elves, you got this.
For More Information:
When you have food allergies, who do you call? (Hint: It's not Ghostbusters!)
Survey research has long demonstrated that Canadians have put trust in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to protect their food supply. But social media is now giving the CFIA the ability to validate that trust almost daily.
Stay Connected with the CFIA on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
While Canadians have always said they had confidence in the Agency, they didn't always know that the broader CFIA mandate included animal health or plant protection – the first links in the food chain.
"Social media is allowing us to do the kind of outreach -- connecting us with multiple consumers, producers, industry associations, and governments -- we could never have dreamed of in recent years," says Aaron Ellis, Manager of Social Media Communications, CFIA Communications and Public Affairs.
"We're constantly picking up new tips from our various social media platforms about potential food recalls, labelling concerns or other important animal and plant health issues," Mr. Ellis says, adding, “We're able to very quickly turn that information over to subject matter experts to investigate and take appropriate action. Through social media, we are staying connected with Canadians."
"We can tweet out a message, and the Twittersphere does much of the heavy lifting for us when a news organization, a blogger or an individual -- with many followers -- re-tweets our message," Mr. Ellis says.
For example, one Twitter user noticed that a package of kettle cooked potato chips with sea salt and malt vinegar was marked gluten free. Malt is made from converted grain. Another Twitter user commented that they had been seeing a lot of this type of incorrect labelling – malt marked as gluten free – and to contact the CFIA (@CFIA_Food). @CFIA_Food jumped in and provided the info and link needed so the labelling concern could be reported. The CFIA then issued a corrective action for the labelling, and both Twitter users tweeted how pleased they were that the process worked.
Beyond Twitter, the CFIA uses multiple platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. "Pinterest alone has 3.8 million users in Canada. This is a very good target audience for a lot of our messaging," notes Mr. Ellis.
Getting important facts to Canadians about food recalls or allergens has long been a mainstay of CFIA communications, and now social media is helping to turn a traditionally "one-way" information flow into a much more interactive form of public engagement.
Prior to the social media revolution, the CFIA was consistently growing its list of email subscribers to whom the Agency would send the latest food recall or allergy bulletins.
The CFIA still does this -- albeit through a more robust 24/7, 365 day per year automated posting system -- but now the Agency gets much more unsolicited information coming back.
Investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness
You wake up and something’s not right. “Ugggh, my stomach is off!” Thirty seconds later, you’re running to the toilet.
Perhaps you didn’t cook the chicken enough the other night. Or maybe the fish taco food truck wasn’t the best idea for lunch this week. Either way, you may have symptoms of food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness.
While individual cases of foodborne illness are common in Canada, actual outbreaks – two or more cases linked by a common exposure within a set time frame – are more rare. Here’s a look at how the Public Health Agency of Canada (the Agency) works with its food safety partners to track and respond to large outbreaks caused by bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria or E. coli.
Outbreak response – the big picture
Canada is fortunate to enjoy one of the safest food systems in the world, but foodborne illness outbreaks happen from time to time.
The Agency works with all the provinces and territories to monitor for a rise in cases of foodborne illness above regular levels. If a number of people appear to have the same illness in a given period and area, it’s called a cluster. When an investigation shows that persons in a cluster have food in common to explain why they all got the same illness, it’s called an outbreak.
Outbreak investigations can be led by local, provincial, territorial or federal health authorities depending on how widespread the illnesses are. In the event of a national outbreak, the Agency leads the response and coordinates with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada, and the provinces and territories with cases of illness. The Agency also provides laboratory support to all regions of the country.
Tracking the source
Responding to an outbreak is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, except you don't know how many pieces the puzzle has, you don't know where to find them, and you don't know what the final picture will look like.
Lab expert testing bacteria samples
To investigate national outbreaks, lab experts test bacteria from people who got sick to find out if the bacteria are the same ones causing illness in other parts of Canada. Epidemiologists at the Agency identify and monitor lab-confirmed cases of illnesses and contact people who got sick. They then ask those people what they did, where they went and what they ate before they got ill. When many people mention eating the same food before they got ill, the epidemiologists work with food safety experts to track down where the food came from and to collect samples of the food for laboratory testing.
The lab experts then compare the results of the bacteria found in contaminated foods to the bacteria from people who got sick to see if they match. Matching bacteria means the investigators may have identified the source of the outbreak. If the source of the outbreak is found to be food, the product is removed from store shelves.
It can take several weeks from the time a person gets sick to the time a food source is identified, well after the person may feel better. Often people can’t remember what they ate, or the contaminated food is no longer available to test, so sometimes the source of the outbreak is never found.
The lab: genetics of bacteria
Just as people are genetically different from each other, so are bacteria. The Agency’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) – Canada's national infectious disease laboratory – has been using a method called pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), to get a "genetic fingerprint" for bacteria specimens from the people who got sick.
“First we cut the pathogen’s DNA into several pieces and place them in a gel,” says Matthew Gilmour, Scientific Director General of the NML and Laboratory of Foodborne Zoonosesat the Agency. “Then we run electricity through the gel, which causes the DNA fragments to separate based upon their lengths. The DNA fragments look like a bar code and represent the PFGE fingerprint. If different samples have identical fingerprints, then the infections may have been caused by the same food. If we then run the same test on bacterial pathogens from a suspect food sample and get the same fingerprint, we may have found the source of the outbreak.”
Dr. Celine Nadon, Chief of the NML's Enteric Diseases section adds, “While PFGE fingerprinting has been helping to quickly solve outbreaks for more than a decade, we are now also using ‘whole genome sequencing’, a technology that does this even faster and more accurately. Whole genome sequencing determines the entire genetic code of the bacteria, which gives us a lot more information to use in linking cases of illness to each other and a food source. We’ve been using it in all of our outbreak investigations in the past two years, and ultimately it will replace PFGE fingerprinting altogether."
Tips to protect yourself
If you’re reading this because you think you might have food poisoning, you may want to consider seeing your physician for further assessment. In the meantime, here are some key tips to avoid getting sick again.
Visit the Government of Canada’s Food Safety Portal or the Agency’s website for more information on food safety and how to protect yourself from foodborne illness. You can also download the free Recalls and Safety Alerts app, which sends up-to-date and reliable health and safety information right to your mobile phone.
Pregnant women exposed: Research reveals surprising results
By: Heidi Robertson
We come in contact with a variety of chemicals every day. This is not necessarily cause for concern. That said, we know we should limit our exposure to harmful chemicals in our environment. For example, high levels of lead and mercury can damage our health.
But what about other chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates? Many of us are aware that BPA and phthalates are common in a wide variety of plastic products. BPA can be found in hard clear plastics, the linings of metal food and drink cans, or thermal papers (like receipts and tickets). Phthalates are often used to make plastics soft and flexible. They can be found in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, children’s toys, soaps, shampoos and nail polish.
Many chemicals like BPA and phthalates are thought to be “endocrine disruptors,” which may interfere with the action of hormones in our bodies. This means they could potentially be linked to harmful effects on developing fetuses. Health Canada researchers wanted to find out how a mother’s exposure to these chemicals might affect a baby’s growth and development.
The Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) study followed approximately 2000 pregnant women from 10 different Canadian cities. Researchers measured the mothers’ exposure to many common chemicals during pregnancy and in the eight weeks after birth.
In 2014, Health Canada published the first results from MIREC, which looked at levels of BPA and phthalates in pregnant women in Canada. The result was surprising!
Researchers found that MIREC participants had lower average levels in their bodies when compared to non-pregnant women of the same age (participants from the Canadian Health Measures Survey). While 88% of pregnant women had detectable levels of BPA in their urine, not all phthalates were detected. The phthalates most frequently detected were those from DEHP, a chemical used in vinyl-type plastics to make them soft and pliable. However, compared to some other pregnancy studies around the world, the levels were much lower.
Health Canada also developed a new test method to analyse 278 milk samples from MIREC study participants. The results of this study found that in general, BPA levels in breast milk were low (and lower than those reported in other countries), with measurable BPA being found in only 26% of the samples.
We don’t know why the pregnant women in the MIREC study have lower levels of BPA and phthalates than non-pregnant women in Canada. Researchers continue to explore these and other questions using data from MIREC and its follow-up studies.
For More Information: http://www.mirec-canada.ca/
Turn That Thing Down!
If you’re like most people, chances are you listen to music on some type of portable device--be it an MP3 player, a cell phone, a tablet or a laptop. You might even still use a portable CD or tape player! Whether you’re a young person who has never seen a cassette tape, or an adult who can’t get over how much music can fit on an iPod nano, you’ve probably been told at some point in your life to turn down the volume.
Why should anyone care how loud your music is if you’re wearing headphones or earbuds? Well, believe it or not, they were probably concerned that you would damage your hearing, and rightly so!
Research has already shown that noise-induced hearing loss adds up over your lifetime. But how loud is too loud? Health Canada scientists have studied the MP3 listening habits of children and adolescents from 15 Canadian schools to find out whether they were listening at volumes that could cause hearing loss.
To start, the researchers asked students questions about:
how they typically used their MP3 player (e.g. how often, how loud, how long)
the type of headphones or earphones they used and how they fit
their general hearing health (e.g. hearing-related problems such as trouble hearing, ringing in ears, ear infections)
Next, the researchers asked each student to choose two volume settings on his or her MP3 player:
a typical (average) listening volume
a maximum (high) listening volume
They then used these pre-determined settings along with self-reported listening time to estimate the risk to each student’s hearing. Actual hearing tests were also carried out in a portable sound booth.
So what did they learn from all this?
The researchers found that 3% of participants were at risk for hearing loss under their typical listening conditions. This number rose to 9% under the students’ maximum-volume listening conditions. Creating a tighter fit between the ear and earbud or headphone (by pushing it tighter it to the ear or wearing the earbuds or headphones under a hat or ear muffs) was associated with higher measured sound pressure levels (and therefore, greater risk).
One quarter of the young people tested also self-reported symptoms of hearing loss.
Overall, the hearing test results showed that 23% of the students did in fact have some measurable hearing loss. And those who reported involvement in other activities with high noise exposure, such as motorcycling or playing music in a band, were at an even higher risk for hearing loss.
So there you have it. Your parents were right all along: you really DO need to keep it down!
For more information, please visit the Health Canada website.
Testing cattle semen… this is a job for the CFIA
By: Jeff Froggett
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) work is essential for a safe and accessible food supply. People may think of the CFIA as “food inspectors,” but the Agency’s role is much more than that. The CFIA doesn’t just use science; the Agency also develops new science every day through research discovery and implementation in order to minimize risks to the country’s plant and animal resources.
Sometimes this means testing cattle semen to make sure it is healthy. And sometimes it takes a microscopic discovery to yield enormous results.
Dr. Brian Brooks, Dr. John Devenish and their team at the CFIA’s Ottawa Animal Health Laboratories, located in the CFIA’s Ottawa Laboratory (Fallowfield), developed a more efficient test procedure to detect a rarely found organism – a subspecies of the Campylobacter fetus (CF) group, which causes an illness called bovine genital campylobacteriosis, or BGC.
BGC can cause infertility, early embryonic mortality and abortion in cattle. Canada is a multi-million dollar exporter of high-quality cattle semen and embryos, so having a test that quickly and accurately identifies BGC is important to Canada’s trade and economy.
Drs. Brooks and Devenish hypothesized that an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test format – using monoclonal antibodies specific to the CF group of organisms – could vastly improve turnaround times over the regular culture-based testing. That’s the test that the CFIA developed.
The enhanced ELISA test allows CF to be detected more readily by seeing a simple colour change in a test reaction, but only if CF is present in an animal sample.
Members of the Ottawa Laboratory (Fallowfield) Animal Health Microbiology Lab – Front row, from left to right: Cheryl Lutze-Wallace, Gloria Berlie-Surujballi, Cathie Elmgren, Jenni Widdison, Donna Milnes. Back row, left to right: Teresa Burke, Amanda Laverdiere, Mohamed Elmufti, Émilie Falardeau, Brian Brooks, John Devenish
Despite the fact that the cause of BGC, C. fetus ssp. venerealis (CFV), rarely appears in Canada, this country is not considered free from CFV. There must be continual testing at Canadian artificial insemination centres for the presence of CFV to prove to international markets that Canada is free of the pathogen. And, if detected, any finding must be reported each year to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
Given how rare BGC is in Canada, CFIA scientists found it difficult to validate their ELISA-based methodology to an international standard. With the very low prevalence of BGC infectivity in Canada, there just weren't enough positive samples available for the team to work with. This slowed down the project and made the task of validation more difficult.
The solution? Collaboration.
CFIA scientists reached out to the Veterinary Laboratory Association in Great Britain, where BGC infection is more common. Methods and materials were exchanged. Regular lines of communication were set up, but done in such a way that the final results were shared only after the testing was completed from each collaborator. This prevented bias in result analysis and maintained scientific rigour.
In the end, it took 12 years to validate the specialized CFIA ELISA test to international recognition, as follows:
- 2005 -- The new ELISA-based procedure was adopted for use within the CFIA. However, more CFV isolations were required to provide necessary statistical proof at an international level.
- 2008 – A rare opportunity presented itself when 114 bulls from the United States were moved to two artificial insemination centres in western Canada. The initial isolation of CFV from two animals in that group led to suspicions of a wider infection. All 114 animals were tested, using both the ELISA and traditional culture method, confirming the presence of CFV infection in 35 of the bulls. This provided the data to complete the validation. An application was made to the OIE.
- 2012 – The CFIA formally received a letter from the OIE accepting the test for placement in the next revised chapter of BGC in the Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals, enhancing the CFIA's global reputation.
Never one to rest on its laurels, the CFIA’s Ottawa Animal Health Laboratories team continues to develop, make improvements to and validate other test methods.
Canada is a multi-million dollar exporter of high-quality cattle semen and embryos. Having a quick and accurate cattle semen test is important to Canada’s trade and economy.
CFIA scientists seek the Barcode of Life
By: Logan Calkins and Janet Hetherington
DNA is what makes each person or species unique. It's that double helix that your genes are made of. DNA accounts for why you resemble your parents and it distinguishes you from everybody else.
Now, imagine a world where all discovered species could be identified through DNA processing and sequencing. This is called “barcoding.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), along with international and national partners, has been working on just such an initiative. It’s called the Barcode of Life, and it’s being led by the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. The Institute is situated at the University of Guelph, which just happens to be the birthplace of the use of DNA barcodes.
The Barcode of Life uses a very short genetic sequence of DNA to identify a species similar to the way a barcode is used to identify products at your local grocery store. The mission of DNA barcoding is to ultimately catalogue every living species in the Barcode of Life database.
In January 2016, Canada’s Minister of Health announced a federal government investment to support the Barcode of Life, with the CFIA is contributing $323,000 over 18 months to support scientific collaboration with the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, University of Guelph.
There is a very practical reason why the CFIA has a vested interest in this initiative, and it has to do with stopping unwanted plant pests and preventing fish labelling fraud. The goal is to develop DNA barcoding capacity in Canada. Ultimately, the CFIA will be able to identify invasive pests that threaten Canadian agriculture and forests faster than before. The Agency will also be equipped to more easily identify species for sale that may have been misrepresented, such as fish and seafood.
Access to the Barcode of Life would help with verifying any given species’ DNA and assist the CFIA with its regulatory enforcement activities.
"This technology is an absolute game changer," says Cameron Duff, Executive Director of the CFIA’s Plant Health Science Directorate.
Stacked DNA trays with barcode stickers labelling each separate species
The CFIA is dedicated to safeguarding plants, animals and food. Plants are the first link in our food chain, and they are critical to Canada's economy. The country’s crop industry generates more than $22 billion in exports alone.
Unwanted invasive pests can cause extensive damage to Canada's crops and forests. The problem is, many plant pests – such as hungry bugs and the eggs they lay – can look alike. Right now, specimens are most commonly identified visually, by looking at their shape, size and colour.
DNA barcoding offers a more accurate identification method to complement traditional techniques. This can lead to a more rapid identification of those plant pests. The ability to accurately detect and identify species using this technology is key to protecting Canada’s agriculture, forests and food supply.
“Rather than having to send an egg mass to an entomology lab, which could take months to get the egg mass to a stage where it could be identified, DNA barcoding could compress the process down to days,” says Mr. Duff.
CFIA research scientist Dr. Delano James agrees. "I think this is a very powerful technology that could allow the identification of a potentially harmful insect pest without needing a fully developed or intact specimen," he says.
The CFIA would benefit from a more efficient way of identifying invasive species to prevent the entry of pests in Canada. This would lead to great advances in the surveillance and risk management programs that the Agency delivers.
Invasive species are most commonly spread by cross-border movement of products. DNA barcoding could set more reliable practices for regulators when determining the presence of species that pose a risk.
It could also help with compliance. Consumers need accurate labelling information so they can make informed decisions about the food they are buying. For example, when the label on a package says “cod,” the fish inside should be cod. The CFIA also sees how this technology will help with the identification of other species so that the label matches the contents, which can be difficult for fish and seafood products.
Trade, too, would benefit. When there is a quick and certain identification of a species, trading partners are better able to agree upon regulatory approaches required. One challenge stems from the consistency of species identification among trading partners. Some species are closely related, and difficult to identify or distinguish. If misidentification occurs, it can lead to differences in regulatory approach.
Employees across the CFIA's laboratory network are working together to develop and test the technology. Projects such as the Genomics Research & Development Initiative, Quarantine and Invasive Species project, and the Genomic Applications Partnership Program, have all contributed to improving existing methods and giving new capacity to speed up species identification processes.
Along with the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, CFIA employees have also connected with such federal partners as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Forest Service, as well as international partners. The goal is to obtain as much data as possible from across the globe, including areas such as Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Region, North and South America – with all partners working towards international integration and adoption.
Access to the Barcode of Life would help with verifying any given species’ DNA and assist the CFIA with its regulatory enforcement activities.
The rise of the tick
If you enjoy being outdoors, chances are you’ve received your fair share of bug bites. Some may cause itchiness or a skin rash, but other bites can sometimes lead to a serious health issue. Take Lyme disease for example; it’s an infection from a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacterium is transmitted to humans from the bite of infected blacklegged ticks and may lead to severe symptoms if left untreated.
Reports of Lyme disease in Canada are on the rise and the little bugs are growing in numbers in new areas, likely due in part to the warming effects of climate change. So now more than ever, we rely on science to help us understand how this disease is spreading.
On the watch
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is continuing to work on Lyme disease surveillance. What is that you ask? Basically, scientists monitor data on reports of where the disease occurs by person, place and time. Accurate reporting of Lyme disease cases is important to better understand the health issue and the geographical spread.
The proportion of Lyme disease infected ticks in specified areas is also being monitored.
Lyme disease surveillance is not a solo job. That’s why PHAC has teamed up with partners and stakeholders--such as Canadian universities, organizations, and provinces and territories--to provide better surveillance that shows a clearer picture of the situation.
How is it done?
Canadian Lyme disease surveillance is led by PHAC and is done in one of three ways:
1. Passive tick surveillance involves testing ticks found on humans (and domestic animals in some regions) that are submitted voluntarily by the public and health care professionals. Tick specimens collected are shipped to the provincial Public Health Laboratories for species identification. Any blacklegged ticks identified are sent to the PHAC’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) to test for the presence of disease-causing bacteria.
2. Active tick surveillance (also known as tick dragging) is conducted by PHAC researchers going out to areas that are suspected to have a high population of ticks and then dragging flannel-like blankets through fields to collect ticks for diagnostic testing at the NML (Yes – this IS a government job!).
3. Human case reporting is done in collaboration with some provincial and territorial public health organizations by reporting human Lyme disease cases to PHAC via the Lyme Disease Enhanced Surveillance system.
The ticks are ticking
Our lab scientists analyze the data collected from the various surveillance methods to help determine such things as the level of risk to Canadians. Predictive risk maps have been developed using the data to pinpoint Lyme disease “hotspots”. Scientists have found that the annual number of nationally reported cases has been steadily rising each year, from 128 in 2009 to 522 in 2014. Preliminary numbers for 2015 report 707 cases.
The study also shows that most cases of Lyme disease are acquired where tick populations are spreading and that how fast and how far they are spreading varies among provinces. “Lyme disease is emerging in Canada due to the spread of the ticks that transmit it -- but there is a lot of variation from province to province in how common that spread is,” says scientist Dr. Nick Ogden.
A collaborative approach is needed to tackle Lyme disease -- from sharing surveillance to better understand this health threat, to working together to improve how the disease is prevented, identified, treated and managed. From May 15 to 17, PHAC hosted a national conference that brought together stakeholders, experts and other interested parties to help with the development of a comprehensive Federal Framework on Lyme Disease.
To learn more about Lyme disease, and how you can protect yourself and spread awareness, visit Canada.ca/LymeDisease.
DIY Biology: From Basement to Biolab
When you think “Do-it-Yourself” (DIY), you probably think about home renovations, or car repair, or that time your dad tried to fix the leaky kitchen sink and ended up ankle-deep in water while your mom called the plumber. What you probably don’t think is “DIY biology”. Yet, it’s a thing. A very big thing, and it’s growing fast.
On March 16, 2016, the Public Health Agency of Canada hosted the first-ever Canadian DIY Biology Summit, bringing together the DIY biology community, academics and federal government departments to discuss how the DIY movement is affecting science and innovation in Canada and globally. But before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at DIY biology, how it works, and the potential impacts on public health in Canada.
Technology is exploding!
By exploding, we don’t mean that time you blew up the lab at school, we mean technology is advancing at a rapid pace. (Remember your first cell phone? *Shudder.) As it advances, it also becomes cheaper and easier to get.
All of this cheap and easy tech has given rise to a whole new community of DIY biologists (also commonly known as biohackers, DIYers, or citizen scientists) working outside of traditional labs. These people are often professional scientists and engineers, and even students, amateurs and hobbyists.
A DIY bio-graphy
The network of DIY biologists began to take shape when DIYbio.org was founded in the U.S. in 2008. Since then, the community has grown to 2,000 registered members (and counting) with 59 groups in 30 countries. In Canada, there are active DIY biology groups in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria.
Most DIYers are working on cheaper and simpler solutions to global health, environmental and social problems. Some work out of a home lab, while others set up community labs.
For example, a DIY biologist might create a mobile, real-time biosensor that detects contaminants in water. Or they might grow human cells on apples to examine its potential use in regenerative medicine.
DIY bio and public health
The main public health consideration for DIYers is biosafety (proper handling or storing of human and animal pathogens and toxins) and biosecurity (preventing the intentional introduction of harmful organisms to human, animal and plant life).
Essentially, it’s important to make sure proper training and lab safety procedures are in place. The most applicable Canadian legislation is the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act (HPTA), which forms the basis for the national safety and security program to protect the health and safety of the public against risks posed by human pathogens. DIY biologists who are looking to conduct experiments with harmful human pathogens or toxins may need to apply for a license under the HPTA, depending on the type of experiment they are doing.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is taking a balanced approach when it comes to regulating DIY biology: protecting public health and safety from harmful pathogens and toxins, while working to foster vibrant and innovative Canadian research.
Canadian DIY Biology Summit
The first-ever Canadian DIY Biology Summit took place on March 16, 2016. It included sessions on the current DIY biology landscape in Canada, building a culture of safety, and opportunities for collaboration between DIYers, universities and science-based government departments and agencies. (See full list of participants below.) The Summit ended with a DIY Biology Fair showcasing interactive demos and displays of DIY molecular biology kits, experimental designs, robotics and equipment, and bioart. Here are a few of the exhibits.
Pelling Labs and their experiment with apples and human tissue.
Wheeler Microfluids’ lab on a chip.
Brico Bio and their portable DIY Bio “Bento Lab”
Let bio-gones be bio-gones
In the past, DIY biology has been frowned upon as amateurs conducting unsafe experiments in their basements. But today, that perception is changing – DIYers are growing in number and doing some really amazing science. They’re here to stay, and traditional scientific organizations have chosen to work with them in pursuit of scientific excellence. The Public Health Agency of Canada is committed to supporting scientific innovation in Canada, and invites you to learn more about both DIY biology and the federal government’s role in biosafety and security.
Canadian DIY Biology Summit participants:
- Pelling Labs
- Open Science Network
- FREDsense Technologies
- Makerspace North
- University of Lethbridge (SYNBRIDGE Maker Space)
- McGill University
- University of Ottawa
- University of Toronto
- University of British Columbia
- Concordia University
CFIA scientist traps elusive invasive beetles with sexy insect perfume
By: Shelly Donaldson
Dr. Vasily Grebennikov, a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) scientist known the world over for his work with beetles, has conducted breakthrough research using the sex pheromones of invasive beetles. This research will help find the pests and prevent them from causing extensive damage to Canada's forests.
"Foreign bugs are like criminals who won't give you their names," says Dr. Grebennikov, the CFIA's lead researcher on beetles that pose a risk to plant resources. "Too often, here in Canada, we get foreign beetles with no identity."
Caption: Dr. Vasily Grebennikov says invasive foreign bugs are like criminals who won't give you their names.
Invasive wood-boring beetles are notorious hitch-hikers. For example, the Asian long-horned beetle and the Emerald ash borer were most likely introduced to Canada with international trade – most often arriving in wooden shipping pallets.
Over the last decade, these destructive beetles have killed millions of trees in North America.
The invasive beetles have often only been detected by chance by a member of the general public, years after they had arrived. Efforts to eradicate them, or at least to control their spread, have cost millions of dollars.
"That's why we need improved survey tools – to detect non-native bark and wood-boring beetles much earlier after they have arrived so we can minimize the damage they do," adds Dr. Grebennikov.
The results of the research, a joint effort between the CFIA's Ottawa Plant Laboratory and the Canadian Forest Service, were published in January 2016. They appear in the European Journal of Entomology, in an Open Access paper under the title, "Efficacy of semiochemical-baited traps for detection of Scolytinae species (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) in the Russian Far East."
Conducted in 2009 and 2010, the research experiment involved setting up elaborate traps in a forest in eastern Russia, which has a similar climate and shares many species of trees and plant-eating beetles with Canada.
"We wanted to design something that smelled irresistible to the beetles – and those smells are sex and food," he says.
The traps were baited with various combinations of synthetic beetle sex pheromones and ethanol, the same smell that trees give off when they are dying. Dr. Grebennikov tested the most effective combination and concentration of pheromones and ethanol that would lure the highest number of beetle species.
"The traps mimic the shape of trees," explains Dr. Grebennikov. "The beetle is attracted by the smell, flies in, and then falls into the container; that's how we collect the samples."
The results of the research show that using both beetle pheromones and ethanol increases the number of beetles caught, as well as the likelihood of detecting potentially invasive species.
"This trapping method will help us detect an invasive pest infestation in the early stages, when specimen density is still extremely low," adds Dr. Grebennikov.
"That way, this research will help us be more proactive in finding these culprits as soon as possible," Dr. Grebennikov says, "before their devastating habits do too much damage to Canada's forests."
Dr. Grebennikov’s next fieldwork in Asia is scheduled for June-July 2016.
Destructive beetles related to this Anoplophora species have killed millions of trees in North America.
Why some communities adjust the level of fluoride in drinking water
You go to the dentist. (You do love the dentist, don’t you?) The hygienist takes out the sharp, terrifying tools and cleans your teeth while happily asking you about your day. Then the dentist comes in, pokes around a bit, and declares you may have a cavity, despite your best efforts to brush seven times a day. Finally, you’re almost done, except for that last little fun part…fluoride!
Fluoride is a mineral found naturally in almost all water sources. It is also found in food and beverages, and in tiny amounts in air and soil. It was discovered that it’s pretty handy at preventing tooth decay, which is why your oral health professionals might apply it on your teeth. That’s also why many communities adjust the amount of fluoride to an optimal and safe level in their drinking water, providing community-wide exposure to prevent tooth decay.
Myths and misconceptions
As with many medical treatments, there are differing opinions on the benefits of adjusting the amount of fluoride in our water. It’s true that too much fluoride in the body can cause discoloured teeth in youth. (More on that later.) However, some claim that fluoride can cause brain damage, weakened bones and even certain types of cancer. There are also some experts who maintain that the benefits do not justify the cost.
Science for the win
As usual, science has dispelled the myths and misconceptions. Numerous studies over decades have proven that adjusting fluoride to the optimal level in drinking water prevents tooth decay and is safe for the human body. There is no clear association between water fluoridation and cancer, brain damage or weakened bones.
The main risk is a minor condition called “dental fluorosis”, which is caused by exposure to too much fluoride as a little kid while your adult teeth are forming. Dental fluorosis can cause small white spots on teeth that have no impact on oral health and are pretty much unnoticeable. It should also be noted that when consumed at extremely high levels for a very long period of time, fluoride may cause a condition called skeletal fluorosis, which causes pain and damage to bones and joints. However, these levels are much higher than what the average Canadian is exposed to daily, and it’s impossible to get skeletal fluorosis from drinking water in Canada--the levels of fluoride are just too low.
In Canada, communities that adjust the amount of fluoride in drinking water do it at a rate of 0.7 milligrams per litre – well below the maximum level of 1.5 mg/L – to protect against possible negative effects. Many studies have shown that levels of tooth decay are lower in communities that adjust the level of fluoride in their water versus communities that don’t. In fact, fluoridating the water can reduce the rate of tooth decay by 25 to 30%.
So the next time you hear someone say water fluoridation is a health risk, don’t believe it. And be happy when you’re cavity-free at your next check-up and the dentist doesn’t have to break out the needle and drill.
Tips on how to improve your oral health
The Canadian Dental Association defines oral health as “a state of the oral and related tissues and structures that contribute positively to physical, mental and social well-being and the enjoyment of life’s possibilities, by allowing the individual to speak, eat and socialize unhindered by pain, discomfort or embarrassment.”
In plain language, that means your mouth is clean, your jaw opens and closes properly, and your teeth are cavity-free, which lets you eat the food you need to be healthy, and keep your great smile!
With that in mind, we’ve asked Canada’s Acting Chief Dental Officer, Dr. Martin Chartier, for some tips on how to keep your mouth in good shape, and to explain how a healthy mouth contributes to your overall health and well-being.
“Oral health can have a significant impact on overall health and well-being, and good oral health can prevent infection and pain. Even more, poor gum condition can contribute to other diseases, such as diabetes,” says Dr. Chartier.
“All of us, as individuals, parents, educators, and communities, have a role to play in promoting good oral health habits. Simple actions such as regular check-ups with an oral health professional, drinking fluoridated water, and reducing our daily intake of sugars – including those sugar sweetened beverages like pops and sport drinks – can really make a difference. It is also essential to brush twice a day (at the very least at bedtime), and to floss daily to minimize the risk of oral health problems and to improve our overall health.”
More dental details
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thirsty for more information on community water fluoridation and how to maintain and improve your oral health. Remember, brush and floss those jibs twice a day!
Uncharted Territory in Zika Virus Research
Could the Zika virus come to Canada? To date, zero cases of Zika have been contracted in Canada through mosquito bites. All reported cases have been travel-related, sexually transmitted or transmitted from mother-to-child. You may be wondering if that could change. With its rapid spread in the Caribbean and the Americas and its international attention, this is a question that’s top of mind for Canadian researchers, as they venture into uncharted territory in their Zika virus research.
Until now, Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) labs were studying mosquitoes in relation to endemic infectious diseases, like West Nile virus. While it’s unlikely mosquitoes infected with this “tropical disease” can survive Canadian winter temperatures, PHAC scientists are investigating this question further.
First Zika research of its kind
PHAC’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) and the Brock lab in Ontario recently launched research to determine if mosquitoes in Canada can acquire the slow-growing Zika virus and transmit it to humans, while surviving in Canadian temperatures. Though there are about 80 different types of mosquitoes in Canada, the experiments focus on those that are widespread and abundant, and frequently bite humans (some feed only on animals, birds and amphibians).
The studies began by obtaining an Asian strain of the virus from Thailand that circulated in French Polynesia during the 2013-2014 outbreak, as well as a strain from Puerto Rico, which is the same strain that is circulating in South America.
The scientists collected live mosquitoes in southern Ontario and Manitoba -- 2 areas that have ideal habitats for mosquito populations. The mosquitoes were trapped and brought back to the labs where they have been exposed to the Zika virus either through injection or by feeding them with Zika-infected blood.
Public Health Agency of Canada scientist collecting mosquitoes in the field.
Should the species be able to pick up the virus, researchers will be closely looking to see if the pathogens will travel through the insect’s salivary glands, a key step for passing the virus to humans.
Canadian climate: a major factor
Climate is also a major barrier to the spread of the disease. As PHAC scientist Dr. Robbin Lindsay explains it, “Zika virus is primarily spread in mosquitoes in countries with tropical climates, and so we want to see the influence of cooler temperatures on the possible development of the infection.”
Researchers will be monitoring the mosquitoes during the incubation period (time required for the virus to develop and reach the salivary glands for possible transmission) to see how varied temperatures affect the ability of the mosquitoes to become infected before they die. Often viruses cannot be maintained in mosquito populations for extended periods of time because of the cold temperatures. The mosquitoes usually die before the virus reaches their salivary glands. The hope is that Zika has these same poor growth patterns in Canadian mosquitoes exposed to typical Canadian temperatures.
So far so good! As of August 30, 2016, researchers at the NML have evaluated 6 mosquito species found in Canada. No evidence was found to indicate that these species can carry or transmit the Zika virus.
Once all the data has been collected, it will be used to update scientific models that predict where the climate is most suitable for the mosquitoes to transmit and acquire the disease. If applicable, risk maps will be developed to display where the possibility of local transmission is the highest. The modelling and risk mapping will be done in collaboration with climatologists at the Université de Québec à Montreal. Ultimately, this information will be used to determine the level of risk now, and in the future with a warming climate, to better protect Canadians.
Protect yourself always
While the research is still ongoing, the risk of contracting the Zika virus from mosquitoes in Canada remains very low. However, it’s always a good idea to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
To learn more about Zika virus and how you can protect yourself, visit Canada.ca.
Field Epidemiologists: Disease Detectives of Public Health
Asking questions, solving mysteries and telling stories are all part of a detective’s job. They also happen to be important aspects of an epidemiologist’s job.
What is epidemiology?
Epidemiology is the study of the frequency, pattern, causes and risk factors of health problems in a specific population. We use epidemiology to address health problems in neighbourhoods, schools, cities, provinces, countries, and around the world.
Epidemiologists work on a wide range of health issues. They might, for example, study groups of people who have been exposed to and affected by something in the environment, such as pesticides. Or, at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), they might track the distribution of diseases – like Ebola in West Africa, Zika in Central and Southern America, or influenza and measles outbreaks in Canada. These epidemiologists use their findings to help determine what is making people ill and to identify ways to prevent more people from getting sick.
Sometimes called “disease detectives,” epidemiologists help provide the evidence needed for other public health professionals to make informed decisions to prevent the spread of a disease or improve the population’s health. Without epidemiology, no one would know what caused outbreaks, how to limit their spread, or how to prevent them. By solving medical mysteries and understanding how diseases spread, epidemiologists are essential to programs and policies that protect the health of Canadians.
PHAC epidemiologists in the field
Imagine there is an outbreak in Canada, such as a food-borne illness caused by bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria or E. coli. If the outbreak appears to be spreading or expanding to more than one Canadian province or territory, epidemiologists at PHAC can be called upon to support a federal response and will work to identify the source of the outbreak.
PHAC epidemiologists can be deployed anywhere in Canada or around the world to help organizations respond to public health events. PHAC has been a member of the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network for many years. Its epidemiologists are often mobilized to support international responses following natural disasters and health events, such as earthquakes, typhoons and floods and during major outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Salman Klar was an epidemiologist with PHAC when the Agency received a request for assistance with recovery and response efforts after a typhoon hit the Philippines in July 2015. Salman, along with two other epidemiologists from Canada, worked with a team of public health professionals to help minimize the risk of outbreak from infectious diseases. He also provided support in reconstruction and recovery efforts (focusing on rehabilitation of health care facilities), monitored alerts, investigated in the field, and helped respond to other ongoing public health issues. Watch this video on Salman’s role in the Philippines for more information.
Training and development – preparing for public health emergencies
PHAC epidemiologists work across a range of functions. Some are part of a group known as Public Health Officers (PHOs), which is a broad term that encompasses a variety of health professionals, such as nurses and health-related policy analysts. (For this blog post, we’ve focused on epidemiologists, but stay tuned for future posts on more PHOs.) Others are part of the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program.
Two professional programs help ensure that PHAC has expertly trained PHOs and field epidemiologists available to respond to public health events or emergencies in Canada or abroad:
Canadian Public Health Service (CPHS)
The CPHS works to improve Canada’s overall preparedness and response to public health events or emergencies by placing PHOs in public health organizations with limited resources at the federal, provincial, territorial or local level to strengthen Canada’s public health workforce, security infrastructure, knowledge and networks. Applicants must possess a Master’s degree in epidemiology, public health, or other health-related field and must have previous experience working in a public health organization or profession. For more information on how to apply, visit the CPHS webpage.
Canadian Field Epidemiology Program (CFEP)
The CFEP trains public health professionals in applied epidemiology--the specialized skills required to respond to diverse public health issues in real-life settings. The program mobilizes field epidemiologists to locations across Canada and around the world, supporting public health organizations as they respond to urgent public health events. Applicants must have a master's degree with a specialization in epidemiology, or a degree from a recognized school of medicine and hold a valid licence to practice medicine in a Canadian province or territory, or have graduated from a veterinary school accredited or approved by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. Visit the CFEP webpagefor more information.
For more information on epidemiologists and Public Health Officers, please visit the Public Health Practice section of PHAC’s website.
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