You know the wintertime flu-prevention mantra: Wash your hands to prevent sickness. But that's not easy when you have no running water and struggle to conserve what little drinking water you haul in daily from the communal tap. Regular flu doesn't sounds so bad, but hundreds of people from St. Theresa Point got sick with H1N1 in that epidemic's first wave in 2009. Federal public health officials conducted a potentially damning epidemiological study into that outbreak, but Health Canada has refused for 18 months to release it, denying an access to information request. The federal information commissioner is investigating.
In addition to the flu, other respiratory ailments exacerbated by poor sanitation can be just as deadly, such as pneumonia or whooping cough. In the spring of 2010, there was an outbreak of whooping cough in northern First Nations, many of which have no running water.
Visit folks in Island Lake and you'll see just how common skin problems are. Many people have rashes on their arms, scars from old outbreaks, small sores or old scabs from eczema or other, more painful skin problems that would normally be curbed with frequent washing.
Bacteria-caused impetigo is a common one, with its red and sometimes itchy blisters than can pop and crust over.
Rashes can linger for months, especially in children, if homes don't have running water where rashes can be washed with soap.
When a house is overcrowded, with a dozen or more people using the same slop pail, and they don't have easy access to clean water for handwashing, it's a recipe for chronic diarrhea. Drinking water from the lake or from a cistern that hasn't been cleaned properly is also a major cause of diarrhea.
Kids and the elderly are most at risk, and if dehydration sets in, diarrhea can send people to hospital or worse.
One nasty organism that causes diarrhea is Shigellosis, which the U.S. government's national library of medicine says is most common among workers and residents of refugee camps. Shigellosis is three to six times more common on Manitoba First Nations than in the general population, with the blame falling on reserves' spotty running water, according to a 1997 study.
The trouble is, diarrhea can be debilitating, but there are few data that track it or its causes. The runs are so common in many communities that people don't bother visiting the nursing station. Having no data gives federal health officials an easy way to dismiss the problem.
The nastiest of the superbugs, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus causes deep, painful, pus-filled boils that can't be cured with penicillin. Whole families are often afflicted. Regular washing with soap and clean water is critical. MRSA can be deadly if it hits the bloodstream, heart or lungs.
A four-year-old boy in Nunavut died from MRSA in 2007, and First Nations in the Manitoba's northern health region typically record astronomical MRSA rates. So far this year, more than a third of all provincial cases of MRSA were found in the 19 First Nations in the Burntwood Regional Health Authority. That's actually an improvement over last year when nearly half of all MRSA patients came from the sparsely populated reserves. No one will say how many came from reserves such as St. Theresa Point or Wasagamack with poor sanitation, but several studies have linked MRSA with a lack of clean water.
NO RUNNING WATER
Totals (all RHAs)
2011 up to July 1,788
MRSA Cases on First Nations in the Burntwood Regional Health Authority (includes Island Lake)
2011 up to July 649
-- Source: Manitoba Health