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First Nations can't go back to 'business as usual' after flu outbreak: AFN chief

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  • First Nations can't go back to 'business as usual' after flu outbreak: AFN chief

    First Nations can't go back to 'business as usual' after flu outbreak: AFN chief

    By: Chinta Puxley, THE CANADIAN PRESS
    8/12/2009 3:24 PM |

    WINNIPEG - For a few weeks this spring, the world's attention was focused on a small cluster of First Nation reserves in northern Manitoba.

    The isolated communities, home to fewer than 10,000 people, appeared to be at the Canadian epicentre of the H1N1 flu pandemic.

    Each day, medevac flights would pick up critically ill people and airlift them to hospitals in the south. Many ended up on ventilators, struggling for breath.

    Jack Harper of the Garden Hill reserve remembers when his 18-month-old grandson, Peter, got sick.

    There were 14 people living in his three-bedroom home. After the toddler was diagnosed with swine flu and flown hundreds of kilometres south to Winnipeg, Harper says his family was shunned.

    "We were upset," he says now. "We don't want this to happen to anyone else."

    The cramped, substandard living conditions on the reserves made them a breeding ground for the virus. It was an example, the World Health Organization said, of how it was taking a harsher toll on people facing poverty, living in overcrowded housing and grappling with underlying health problems.

    The outbreak has since subsided in the north, but Canada's aboriginal leaders want it to be a wake-up call. They say it's just the latest high-profile crisis brought on by squalid living conditions and a lack of accessible health care and education on Canadian reserves and it's not likely to be the last.

    "We've got a pattern ... of lurching from crisis to crisis," says National Chief Shawn Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations.

    "First Nations are in a crisis without H1N1 hitting us. The health conditions are devastatingly poor. Until we all recognize this is a shared responsibility, we'll continue to languish in this lurching from conflict-to-conflict pattern."

    The swine flu pandemic has highlighted some of the chronic problems facing Canada's First Nations, Atleo says.

    Some people in remote communities weren't diagnosed soon enough because the closest doctor was a plane flight away. Others didn't realize they were pregnant and didn't know how vulnerable they were to the virus, so they ended up seriously ill. Some didn't have access to running water, making basic handwashing - a primary way to prevent spreading the virus - all but impossible.

    "If you don't have access to water, you've got a heightened problem on your hands," Atleo says. "The poverty, the infrastructure challenges, the lack of access to services that many people have, is an ongoing problem."

    Swine flu is not the only ailment that has hit aboriginals harder than others.

    The rate of diabetes is four times higher among aboriginals than in the general population. Tuberculosis is 29 times more prevalent.

    First Nations also seem to be contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, at a higher rate. Atleo cites recent figures that show aboriginal people represent 27 per cent of new positive HIV tests while they make up close to four per cent of the country's total population.

    "My concern is that we don't just run across the H1N1 end line, but that we look at tuberculosis, asthma, diabetes, HIV/AIDS," he says. "We've got to do a lot more to close the health gap in general."

    Jerry White, associate dean of graduate studies for social science at the University of Western Ontario, says the swine flu outbreak was significant because everyone recognized that poor living conditions made First Nations vulnerable. But he says that hasn't translated into long-term, concrete changes.

    "When we start to see joint task forces between the federal and provincial government to take a look at these issues, then we will know they are really going to try and develop something," says White, director of the university's aboriginal policy research centre.

    "What worries me is what's going to happen June 1 when we are out of flu season completely. Is this going to make a permanent change? I haven't seen that."

    A spokeswoman for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada says the department is aware of the impact H1N1 has had on First Nation communities and is committed to "minimizing the health impact and improving living conditions."

    Margot Geduld says Ottawa announced money as part of its stimulus package, including $365 million for First Nation infrastructure projects and $400 million to improve on-reserve housing. She couldn't say how much of that has started to flow to reserves across Canada.

    "Tangible progress has been made in improving housing and water conditions in First Nation communities," she says. "INAC does continue to invest in the health and safety of First Nations."

    Grand Chief David Harper, who represents Manitoba's northern First Nations - including one of the hardest hit reserves-says the media glare in the spring was a blessing. It forced all levels of government to recognize the risks faced by aboriginals and to act immediately, at least in the short term, to move aboriginals to the front of the line for the H1N1 vaccine.

    While Manitoba's NDP government has promised to try to address some of the reserves' long-standing problems, Harper says there has been silence from Ottawa.

    "Nothing has changed there."

    "Safety and security don't just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear."
    -Nelson Mandela