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'We must all work together'

Co-operation needed to help natives deal with flu crisis: MDs

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The global volunteer agency Doctors Without Borders says Canada can and should help its own First Nations struggling with Third World conditions and an H1N1 health care crisis.

"I believe in Canada we have the capacity to respond to that," said Dr. Joanne Liu, the outgoing president of Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Canada.

"Being a country of the G-8 and with all the resources we have here, it would be unfortunate if we are not able to co-ordinate ourselves and respond to the crisis," Liu said Friday.

In the United States after Hurricane Katrina, Doctors Without Borders was asked to help, said Liu. Before sending in any volunteers, the organization did an assessment of the disaster zone, she said.

"There was enough manpower to address it, even though the co-ordination was maybe lacking," said Liu.

Governments and agencies involved need to work together and make sure care is getting to the people in times of crisis, said Liu.

"We need to get our act together and do what is right for the First Nations people," said Liu. "That needs political leadership. It's a question of will."

When a tsunami swept through Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, and killed more than 200,000 people, Ottawa responded with a relief effort totalling $425 million and included emergency teams consisting of doctors and soldiers who brought medicine and badly needed supplies.

But when the H1N1 virus struck the native communities of Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point, local officials point out Ottawa and Manitoba are unable to provide them with basic medical care like a full-time doctor and adequate hand sanitizers.

"It is important that Manitobans and the Canadian public understand the obstacles and hurdles First Nations are facing in accessing the basic health care services that many others take for granted," said Ron Evans, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"It's very frustrating," said Liu. Its volunteers enter conflict and disaster zones around the world. At times, they have to deal with duelling jurisdictions in order to take health care to the people caught in the middle, she said.

In Manitoba, the lack of federal and provincial response to the situation at Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point overshadowed the first anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology to Indian residential school survivors, Evans said.

"The H1N1 virus that is seriously impacting our communities today demonstrates that our communities and people continue to suffer in poor living conditions," Evans said Thursday. For nearly three years, aboriginal leaders have tried to work with federal officials to develop pandemic planning, but nothing happened until the H1N1 virus hit the northern community of St. Theresa Point over the past two weeks.

"We are on the verge of a full-scale pandemic and we are once again calling upon all levels of government, the minister of health and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, for immediate action," Evans said.

"We have no time for jurisdictional battles. We must all work together on this."

Systemic poverty issues like poor housing and access to decent medical care need to be quickly addressed, Evans said.

"The first wave of the pandemic demonstrates that poverty among our people make them very vulnerable."

There are signs some help is mobilizing for the remote communities.

On Friday, Manitoba Nurses Union president Sandi Mowat said the union has paved the way for Winnipeg Regional Health Authority nurses to volunteer to work at some of the understaffed northern nursing stations to give their colleagues a break.

Local pharmacy mogul Daren Jorgenson said he has been trying to send doctors to those communities for several years and has been repeatedly rebuffed by provincial and federal officials.

"We have repeatedly requested for permission to have our physicians work in the nursing stations of these two communities for years now and have always been told no," Jorgenson said in an email distributed to the media Thursday.


-- with files from Bruce Owen


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2009 A3

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