Health Canada says it may have to close some medical stations in remote Manitoba reserves struggling with a severe flu outbreak if it can't find more nurses to work there.

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This article was published 11/6/2009 (4514 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Health Canada says it may have to close some medical stations in remote Manitoba reserves struggling with a severe flu outbreak if it can't find more nurses to work there.

The department has put out a tender for nurses to work in 24 isolated reserves, saying it is having "great difficulty" finding them.

Dozens of people from some of those reserves have been airlifted and hospitalized with severe flu-like symptoms, and a growing number of cases are being confirmed as swine flu.

"Health Canada is having great difficulty recruiting and retaining employed nurses in the nursing stations and two federal hospitals located in northern Manitoba on reserves," the tender states.

"Without adequate service, the nursing stations and hospitals may have to close for periods of time which could result in severe medical liability."

In an emailed statement, a spokeswomen for Health Canada said the tender has nothing to do with the current flu situation. Christelle Legault said a tender is put out before the current contract expires to ensure there aren't any nursing shortages.

"To date, Health Canada has sufficient staff to meet the needs of First Nations communities in Manitoba," she said.

"The level of nursing services is not at risk. On the contrary, we are issuing this... to ensure that we continue to provide a high level of nursing services on First Nations reserve."

But the prospect of losing the clinics at the frontline of Manitoba's severe flu outbreak horrifies those grappling with the illness. Many say it highlights just how threadbare health care is for northern aboriginals.

"If they ever close the nursing station, I hope they open a hospital," Garden Hill Chief David Harper said. "It's tragic. The kind of service that we're getting up here is totally unacceptable."

Some 38 people have been airlifted out of Garden Hill First Nation in the last month, including an 18-month-old boy -- the community's first confirmed case of swine flu. The reserve of 4,000 residents only has three full-time nurses.

Some 22 new cases of swine flu were added to Manitoba's total Thursday to bring the total number in the province to 78. Of the 24 Manitobans in intensive care due to flu, two-thirds are native.

Many have been airlifted out of a remote area 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg that has fewer than 10,000 residents.

But even Harper said he's not sure he would want to work as a nurse in Garden Hill. The nursing station's equipment is old or broken and nurses don't have the support of a full medical team as they would have in an urban clinic, he said.

"We are struggling to get some service up here."

Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said northern communities would face "a pretty desperate situation" if any nursing stations were to close. One cluster of northern Manitoba reserves is home to about 10,000 people and doesn't have a single hospital, he pointed out.

"There's absolutely no reason why we can't build a hospital in one of those communities so that people can expect to have access to good health care," Fontaine said. "We're talking about a crisis, and we need to deal with that."

Glen Sanderson with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said closing any nursing stations would exacerbate a growing medical crisis. Nursing stations are the first -- and often only -- line of defence for remote reserves, he said.

"It would be devastating to the community. There are no other health providers around."

Contracting out nursing services for northern reserves is a short-term solution, Sanderson added. The federal government must do more to improve health care for remote communities, including training people from the reserve to work as nurses, he said.

Some nurses who work in northern Manitoba say closing the nursing stations is short-sighted and will cost taxpayers more in the end.

Nicole Harder, who has worked in the region for 12 years, said it takes a special set of medical skills to work on northern reserves.

Nurses also must be willing to work in isolation and leave their families for months at a time, she pointed out.

And at a time when the community is being hit hard by severe flu, nurses are on call working virtually around the clock, she said. While hospitals can cope with being short-staffed, it's not easy for nursing stations with only two employees.

But without the nursing stations, many more people would need to be airlifted out of a community at a cost of millions. "You don't take chances," Harder said.

-- The Canadian Press