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Published June 04, 2009, 06:57 PM

Official: Swine flu cases on remote Manitoba reserve a 'wake-up call'

The emergence of swine flu on a remote northern Manitoba reserve is a wake-up call for governments to address poor living conditions and improve health care for aboriginals, the community’s chief said Thursday.

By: Canadian Press,

WINNIPEG — The emergence of swine flu on a remote northern Manitoba reserve is a wake-up call for governments to address poor living conditions and improve health care for aboriginals, the community’s chief said Thursday.

David McDougall of St. Theresa Point First Nation said there are two confirmed cases of swine flu on the reserve. Another 21 people are in hospital suffering from flu-like symptoms.

As a result, some people in the community of 3,200 are wearing masks and most are avoiding large get-togethers, he said.

It’s still not clear how swine flu reached the reserve, McDougall said. But he added the spread of the illness has likely been exacerbated by the shortage of housing and cramped quarters.

“It’s common for 12 people to be living in a two-bedroom bungalow,” he said at a news conference in Winnipeg on Thursday. “We know that’s prime breeding ground for viruses such as this one.

“It’s a wake-up call for everyone. This is an emergency and a catastrophe waiting to happen. Now we’re seeing it.”

Provincial and federal governments have sent more doctors and nurses to the remote community, which is 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and accessible only by air. But officials have so far refused to say much about the outbreak in St. Theresa Point — even with the community’s chief.

Elise Weiss, Manitoba’s acting chief public health officer, said Thursday there were two more confirmed cases of swine flu in the province — including one more from the vast health region which includes St. Theresa Point. The new cases brought the total number provincewide to 40.

Since virtually all communities probably have some form of swine flu, specific communities are not being identified, she said.

“Public health advice does not change whether you are in community A, B or C.”

Christelle Legault, with Health Canada, said Ottawa is “aware of and responding to a cluster of respiratory illness reported in St. Theresa Point, with a robust medical response that includes additional nurses and physicians.”

“Two Public Health Agency of Canada epidemiologists will be going to St. Theresa Point to review the pattern of transmission, examine the clinical presentation and outcome of residents will influenza-like illness, and determine the origins of the virus,” she said in an emailed statement.

Dr. Arnold Monto, an influenza expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said experts are watching the situation closely.

“We really don’t know what will happen in populations which are, number 1, crowded; number 2, potentially disadvantaged in one way or the other; and number 3, have host factors which might result in more extreme expression of disease,” Monto said.

“All of this would remind us that any influenza pandemic is going to be more severe in certain population groups and not something which can be brushed off with the statement: ‘Oh, it’s no worse than seasonal influenza.”’

Most sick people on the reserve were experiencing mild symptoms, but McDougall said his two pregnant nieces fell seriously ill and one lost her child. Both women were in critical condition, he said. It hasn’t been confirmed yet whether swine flu made them sick.

“There have been some frightening moments through the course of their treatment.”

But there is no reason for people to panic, McDougall said.

As news has spread about the flu, so too has prejudice, he added. Some family members from St. Theresa Point were turned away from a Winnipeg hotel because of concerns they could infect others.

“There are two confirmed cases from my community,” McDougall said. “There are 27 cases in the city of Winnipeg. I can’t see why there is a big alarm dealing with people from St. Theresa Point.

“I feel very handicapped by the whole situation, almost as if I’m blind,” McDougall continued. “There is uncertainty. I’d like to work with both levels of government to ease the situation, but it’s very hard when there are certain departments that are not playing the same game we are.”

Life is changing in St. Theresa Point’s neighbouring reserves as officials take some precautionary measures to avoid the spread of swine flu. Chief Jerry Knott, of Wasagamack First Nation, said the local school has closed, traffic is restricted and people are avoiding travel as well as large get-togethers.

Chief David Harper, from neighbouring Garden Hill First Nation, said the community’s school has been shut down as medivac planes regularly ship people out for medical attention. While the northern cluster of reserves is home to 10,000 people, southern Manitoba towns with a fraction of the population have hospitals, he said.

“We’re calling on the government not to turn a blind eye to pending atrocities,” he said. “We’re calling on the government to act quickly, be more responsive and answer to the call of our needs.”

Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald said the federal government takes the lead in situations like this but the province has been playing an important supporting role by supplying doctors, antivirals and respiratory masks.

But she said both levels of government need to do a better job of sharing information with First Nations communities. Without accurate information, she said people will start to panic.

“We know that there are severe respiratory illnesses circling around in the north that are concerning, influenza-like illnesses . . . that may not be H1N1 but still require intervention,” said Oswald, adding confirming swine flu cases takes time. “That has caused some anxiety for people in that it’s not an instantaneous result ... so we just need people to be patient.”