FIVE young children on a northern Manitoba First Nation recently suffered dysentery after a shigella outbreak that may be linked to contaminated water.
The latest Manitoba communicable disease report shows an outbreak of shigella erupted in the community in September, infecting three girls and two boys between the ages of one and nine. Shigella is a bacterium commonly associated with contaminated food or water, and causes an easily transmitted infection that leads to bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Health Canada officials responsible for health services on First Nations would not disclose the name of the community, citing privacy, but confirmed environmental health officers tested the community's water- treatment plant and local restaurants to try to find the source of the outbreak.
Health Canada officials said in an email they "found no problems with food or community water and sewage systems. Public health staff continue to review reported cases for possible sources of exposure." Officials would not say whether the children were hospitalized, but confirmed all have recovered.
Health Canada did not respond when asked if the community or any homes where the outbreak occurred had limited access to running water.
Northern Manitoba Grand Chief David Harper said the outbreak is another sign Ottawa needs to move quickly to ensure First Nations residents have access to clean water in order to prevent infections such as shigellosis and influenza from spreading. He said residents are constantly told to wash their hands to stave off infections, yet many households don't have access to fresh water.
"Why is it so easy for these diseases to occur?" Harper said. "It's a lack of running water. A lack of clean water is the reason."
A recent Free Press series revealed the absence of running water in more than 1,400 Manitoba reserve homes is linked to health problems such as skin infections and diarrhea.
A study published in 1997 found shigellosis was three to six times more common in Manitoba First Nations communities without running water, compared to those with piped water. During a 1992 to 1994 Manitoba epidemic, 300 registered Indian children under the age of 10 had shigellosis, including 59 who had to be hospitalized.
Medical health officer Dr. Linda Poffenroth of First Nations and Inuit Health told the Free Press earlier this year the absence of recent shigella outbreaks in Manitoba demonstrated the impact of getting clean water to more communities.
"There have been major improvements in access to water in First Nation communities in Manitoba in the last 10 to 15 years," she said. "The absence of outbreaks of shigella and hepatitis A has made a huge improvement in people's lives."
Harper said he's concerned that federal health officials did not inform him of the shigella outbreak. He wants to see a First Nations public health officer in Manitoba so northern leaders know about outbreaks when they're occurring. He said good communication would mean leaders can do more to educate area schools and residents on how to avoid getting sick.
"Bottom line is we're going to need a First Nations chief public health officer, because anything like this we're not told. It's (swept) under the rug and we get no information," Harper said.