Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bad days for St. Theresa Point

40 per cent of babies were sick with flu

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In the span of just 22 days during the H1N1 pandemic, at least 40 per cent of all babies on the remote St. Theresa Point reserve were sick with the flu.

That's according to a Health Canada study published recently in the Canadian Journal of Public Health detailing the spread of H1N1 through the First Nations community in 2009, an outbreak made worse by the reserve's lack of proper sewer-and-water services.

According to researchers, the first wave of the flu outbreak hit St. Theresa Point early and hard, resulting in 180 confirmed or suspected cases.

St. Theresa Point's babies had an alarmingly high "attack rate." Forty per cent of all children under the age of one got infected with the flu.

The researchers said the chief and council, community and government did almost everything right when it came to battling the epidemic. Extra nurses and doctors were rapidly mobilized. Infection-control measures such as masks, cough hygiene and handwashing protocols were emphasized in the community with an extensive awareness campaign. Schools were closed and social gatherings were cancelled.

Those measures usually help, but not in St. Theresa Point, partly because the H1N1 virus was already widespread.

"Limited access to water in homes and overcrowded households may also have contributed to the rapid and extensive transmission of (H1N1) in this community," wrote the researchers.

Preparing for the next big pandemic outbreak needs to include attention to fundamental health determinants such as overcrowded housing, access to clean water and proper sanitation, said the researchers.

In addition to reviewing every chart and the nursing station's daybooks, researchers interviewed 23 flu sufferers. Of those, 70 per cent did not have indoor plumbing. They hauled their water in containers from a community pipe.

The Winnipeg Free Press first wrote about the study in December, after obtaining a longer but heavily censored version of the document through access to information. Health Canada battled for nearly two years to keep the study secret and earned a reprimand from the federal information commissioner.

St. Theresa Point is one of four Island Lake reserves that made national headlines in recent years because more than half the homes lack indoor toilets and taps. At last count, about 900 homes on the four reserves were without indoor water-and-sewer service, forcing residents to use lake water for cleaning, drive to communal taps for drinking water and use slop pails or outhouses instead of indoor toilets.

Late last year, Ottawa earmarked $5.5 million to retrofit 100 homes on the four reserves and to buy 13 water and sewer trucks as well as materials to build garages for the trucks.

A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said 38 homes are in the process of being retrofitted with proper bathrooms and sinks this summer and work should be done within this fiscal year.

St. Theresa Point Chief Eugene Wood did not return several calls for comment.

H1N1 snapshot

17: Percentage of laboratory-confirmed H1N1 cases in Manitoba that occurred in remote First Nations

409: Number of flu-related visits to the St. Theresa Point First Nation nursing station between April 20 and June 11, 2009

33: Number of St. Theresa Point residents medevaced to Winnipeg

6: Number of pregnant women medevaced from St. Theresa Point during the study period

-- source: Investigation of a Pandemic H1N1 Influenza Outbreak in a Remote First Nations Community in Northern Manitoba, 2009. Published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, March/April 2012

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 A3

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