God's Lake First Nation uses education to combat TB.
GOD'S LAKE NARROWS, Man.
After suffering the worst outbreak of tuberculosis in the entire province last year with more than a dozen cases reported in this Cree community of just over 1,000 people, a concerted public education campaign and improved hygiene program appears to have turned the tide.
"It was really difficult here for many families," said Chief David Andrews. "Many were afraid and there was a lot of sadness for those people whose families had been affected."
The primary cause, according to Andrews, was the lack of treated drinking water and waste treatment facilities and overcrowded housing in the community. Less than 20 per cent of the homes in the community have running water or contained waste treatment. Overcrowded housing, with two and three families often sharing one residence, has also been identified as a primary cause of poor hygiene among residents.
"The outbreak of this disease served to underscore the fact that many First Nations are living in Third World conditions because of the chronic lack of funding by the government to meet basic standards of acceptable living for our people," he said. "The failure by the government to respect their treaty and fiduciary responsibilities has direct consequences for our people, particularly their health."
Of the more than a dozen cases reported in God's Lake, most were young children and the elderly, according to health officials with the Manitoba government.
And because many of the outdoor toilet facilities were draining into the lake, which serves as the primary source of drinking water for the community, chief and council, along with school educators and the reserve nursing station, embarked on an intensive program of public education stressing proper personal hygiene, the proper treatment of drinking water and improving toilet facilities across the reserve.
Since its introduction there have been no new cases of TB reported, however the community is not relaxing its efforts in public education and pressing for improved living conditions, said Andrews.
"We can't stop now simply because it appears that the worst has passed. We can't let down our guard."
While public education and the entire community's commitment to the health and hygiene program are credited with arresting the spread of TB, Andrews said the community is also actively planning to develop its own water and waste treatment facility.
"In order for us to really develop as a people we need to have some reasonable certainty and peace of mind that we have the chance for good health. We will be pressing the federal government to act immediately in this regard. We can't wait indefinitely."
Indian Affairs Regional Director Lorne Cochrane confirmed that his office is currently working with the community to develop improved water and waste treatment facilities for the community as well as for a new housing development program.
"It is a priority for my department to assist this community in whatever way we can build a healthy community," he said.
While public awareness has paid off for the community, the Manitoba Sanitarium Board warns that Aboriginal people continue to be the hardest hit by TB among non-immigrant residents in the province.
Of 116 cases reported in the province last year, 43 involved Aboriginal people.
"This reflects the notoriously poor living conditions and overcrowding on reserves in the province," said board member Dr. Earl Hershfield.
For Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak Grand Chief Francis Flett, the outbreak of Tuberculosis in God's Lake should act as warning to all levels of government that First Nations continue to suffer living conditions that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the country.
"This is serious. Our people's health, that of our young people and our Elders is being affected here and now. We cannot wait for decades for the government to recognize this and act. We are simply asking for the same fundamental human rights that people take for granted in the rest of the country. The government must honor its treaty commitments. Capacity building and economic development mean nothing when you cannot even provide the basic necessities of life."