WINNIPEG — MEXICAN migrant workers could put Manitobans and themselves at risk of swine flu because of inadequate health insurance and fear of seeking medical help.
The warning came Tuesday from a Spanishspeaking union worker who said the migrants need better government-funded health coverage while in Canada. "We are in a situation where we can’t take chances... . This is very dangerous to the system," said Gustavo Mejicanos, who comes into contact with about 400 seasonal workers each year as co-ordinator of Portage la Prairie’s Agriculture Workers Alliance Centre.
He said the migrant workers come to Manitoba each year on temporary visas to make money for their families. Many are afraid to access health care here because of costs not covered by the private insurance they are required to get.
He appears to have uncovered a gaping hole in the province’s defence against the potential swine-flu pandemic.
Manitoba’s chief medical officer, Dr. Joel Kettner, said he doesn’t think the province is doing anything to address the issue of Mexican seasonal workers, but plans to look into it further.
A Manitoba government spokeswoman said Tuesday the province will discuss any possible gaps with the federal government.
Private health coverage for migrant workers is often organized by the farm’s owner, Mejicanos said. In Saskatchewan, a provincial spokeswoman said seasonal workers under the same federal program are covered by provincial health care.
Mejicanos estimated there are currently 60 Mexican seasonal workers already in Manitoba, men aged 20 to 45 years. He said 15 to 20 of those workers arrived during the last month.
He said many seasonal workers work 12 to 16 hours a day on Manitoba farms and some suffer injuries. Many do not want to call attention to themselves for fear of losing their contracts, Mejicanos said.
"They’re afraid of losing their job and being sent back to Mexico," he said. He said one Mexican worker had a hernia last year and received a $500 bill for a hospital visit. That discouraged other workers from reporting health issues, he said. "They are afraid to report the problems because history proves they are not being well taken care of," Mejicanos said. "The solution is that they’re sent back to Mexico."
Meanwhile, public-health officials are trying to quell public fear as the viral outbreak continues to spread across Canada.
Seven new cases of swine flu are confirmed in Canada — one in B.C., two in Alberta and four in Ontario, bringing the total number of cases to 13. All of the Canadians who fell ill were in Mexico or contracted the disease from someone else who had visited the Latin American country.
The Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab is helping to train Mexicans to start testing samples for the swine flu.
Labs in Alberta and B.C. are now doing their own tests on suspected cases to take some of the load off Winnipeg scientists.
Unlike other provinces, Manitoba is not commenting about suspected cases of swine flu, but Kettner said any confirmed cases will be reported publicly.
He also said health officials are working around the clock to prepare for the situation, should things worsen. Kettner said he’s concerned that increasing public fear surrounding swine flu could spark panic among people and businesses. Manitobans who panic and report to an emergency room with a sniffle could slow down care for those who really need it, he said.
Kettner reminded Manitobans there are things they can do to avoid getting sick, including washing their hands, using hand sanitizer and coughing into a hankerchief or sleeve to contain the spread of germs.
"Now I think the challenge is to get the public to understand what’s going on, because my concern is that the public is a little more worried about this than they need to be," Kettner said.
On Tuesday, the Manitoba government sent letters to all schools in the province to remind them how to guard against communicable diseases
— With files from Jen Skerritt and Mia Rabson
Free pandemic tool kit online
THE International Centre for Infectious Diseases has a free online pandemic tool kit for businesses fretting about how they will function if employee absenteeism skyrockets. President Terry Duguid said up to 75 per cent of businesses haven't considered the impact a flu pandemic will have, despite the fact that between 25 and 50 per cent of employees won't come to work during a severe pandemic.
"It's a double-whammy right now," Duguid said, noting Mexican businesses have suffered a huge blow from travel restrictions. "All businesses in North America are experiencing a recession and (swine flu) is piled on top."
The business resource is available at www.icid.com.
Church launches website
CHURCH congregations interested in preparing for the pandemic and helping their community can visit the Mennonite Church of Canada's pandemic website at www.churchpandemicresources.ca.
The website coaches church leaders on health precautions, how to carry on a faith group in the event of a pandemic, and how to care for people at risk in the congregation and community.