TB another big threat to communities

By Isha Thompson
Windspeaker Staff Writer

H1N1 may be the hot topic at the moment, but it is only one of the many health issues that need immediate attention on First Nation reserves across the country, said Shawn Atleo, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief.

Atleo referred to the H1N1 virus as "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to major health issues like HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis that First Nations people are suffering from at an alarming rate.

"I don't think the Canadian public understands how our people are impacted by TB," said Atleo. "We definitely have to open up the discussion and dialogue."

The national chief has been aggressive when it comes to ensuring secluded First Nation communities are well informed about H1N1.

Atleo, along with Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq, signed a communications protocol in September that vowed to relay information and necessary resources to help First Nations defend themselves against the pandemic.

Atleo said his push for more attention on how severely the new flu strain is impacting Aboriginal communities was also a strategy to put the spotlight on living conditions that are also contributing to the escalating cases of TB.

"They're inextricably linked," said Atleo about the overcrowding and substandard housing that make First Nation communities more susceptible to H1N1, as well as TB. "That's why the work on H1N1 needs to be the first step, so we can tackle broader issues like TB."

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Ron Evans agreed with Atleo and firmly believes that root issues that are behind severe illnesses in First Nations communities must be addressed.

"Over-crowding, shortage of homes, moldy conditions; it all boils down to the living conditions of our people in the communities that lead to all the diseases that are of a respiratory nature," said Evans. He added that reserves in his province not only need additional housing, but homes that are higher quality.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that typically affects the lungs. As it progresses it can result in serious infections that, if left untreated, can result in death. TB on reserves where too many people are forced to live in a single home is a particular concern due to its easily contagious nature.

"It is not something you or I would want to experience," said Chief Evans.

The Lung Association of Manitoba said they too are aware of the high numbers of First Nations who are infected with TB. The association contributes by providing X-rays, free information brochures for nursing stations and occasionally with in-person visits by staff members, said executive director Margaret Bernhardt-Lowdon by E-mail.

Cross Lake First Nation is a Manitoba reserve that considers TB one of the biggest threats to its 6,000 band members.

Cross Lake First Nation Chief Garrison Settee said treating symptoms of TB is not helping. Instead, the newly elected chief echoed Evans by explaining that living conditions for First Nations across the country need to be improved.

"How can we live healthy lives if we live in Third World conditions," asked Chief Garrison, who explained that many of the households on his reserve have several families residing under one roof.

"When you don't have adequate housing, your health problems will continue to be there."

The AFN has joined forces with the Stop TB Partnership, which has vowed to put an end to the disease that affects the most vulnerable around the world.