WINNIPEG — The World Health Organization is concerned about the surge of H1N1 influenza cases in two isolated Manitoba First Nations communities, even as the chief of Garden Hill First Nation said his community lacks basic medical resources to cope with the crisis.
They don't have a full-time doctor or antivirals. They also don't have enough masks, medical gloves or sanitization equipment.
Manitoba Health is working to find an extra doctor to send to Garden Hill, but that may not happen until next week. It was only on Wednesday that First Nations Inuit Health decided to send hand sanitizers to First Nations communities, many of which don't have access to running water.
Dozens of First Nations residents have been medevaced to hospitals in Winnipeg with severe flu-like symptoms.
"We need to set up a temporary hospital base right within the region, that is what's urgently needed," Garden Hill Chief David Harper said Wednesday, referring to the Island Lake region that includes three other First Nations communities, including St. Theresa Point. Garden Hill has only a nursing station that shares a doctor with a neighbouring community.
"The amount of medevacs that we've had in one month would almost pay for a hospital. It would definitely pay for a hospital."
Harper said medical equipment such as masks, antivirals and sanitization equipment was ordered last week through the local nursing station but has not arrived. If it doesn't come soon, Harper said, he'll pay for the equipment out of his own pocket.
"Whatever it takes," he said. "We're in a war zone, we have to protect (our community). Especially our children and our elderly."
The Garden Hill school has been closed for the year and members of the community have been asked not to gather in groups, if possible.
"We're fighting an invisible enemy and it's coming into our community," he said.
Four of the 16 new cases of H1N1 confirmed by the province Wednesday are from the Island Lake region. There are now 56 confirmed cases of H1N1 in Manitoba.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's senior influenza expert, had noted on Tuesday the organization is very concerned about reports from Manitoba of severe illness among aboriginal people who have contracted swine flu, noting that in previous pandemics, such populations have been hit particularly hard.
Harper's pleas for a temporary hospital in the Island Lake region were echoed in the House of Commons Wednesday by Churchill MP Niki Ashton.
"Chief (David) McDougall of St. Theresa Point has called for a field hospital to deal with the situation that is so bad," she said during question period in Ottawa. "If we can do this in war zones, why can we not do it on the front lines of a coming pandemic?"
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq answered that Canada's pandemic plan applies to everyone and Health Canada is working with its provincial and First Nations counterparts.
Harper said one of his community's two confirmed cases of H1N1 is an 18-month-old boy, Peter Flett, who was medevaced to Winnipeg early Monday morning.
He said Peter's case illustrates how poor living conditions, a lack of resources and overworked nurses can have tragic results. He said the toddler was misdiagnosed and turned away from the nursing station a number of times last week.
Manitoba Health's assistant deputy minister, Terry Goertzen, said the department is trying to secure doctors who could be flown into the Island Lake region.
"I understand that we may have a physician resource secured for (Garden Hill) next week but I know that that's not good enough from a community perspective," he said.
Also Wednesday, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, which is responsible for Winnipeg hospitals, announced new visitor guidelines.
"We certainly understand how difficult it is to stay away and not visit when someone is in hospital, but we're really asking that people who might have the flu certainly should not come if they've had the flu within the previous seven days," said Jan Currie, vice-president of the WRHA. Parents should also avoid bringing children under 12 to visit in the hospital because of their susceptibility to influenza.