Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavik January 16, 2004 - 1:43 pm

Priest recalls fighting deadly flu

Death toll high in epidemic of 1958


Nearly 50 years ago when influenza swept down Nunavik’s Ungava Bay coast, most Inuit, who had little resistance to the illness, became extremely sick, and many died.

“In 1958 we had a flu epidemic. Here in Kangiqsujuaq, everyone was sick in the igloos,” recalled Father Jules Dion who arrived in Nunavik as a Catholic missionary from Belgium in 1955 and still lives in Kangiqsujuaq.

Visitors from Salluit had brought the flu germs down the coast with them.

“They were sick en route but they stopped for a few days and then headed on. They thought it was just a little bug, nothing out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t that at all,” Father Dion recalled.

With no doctor and nurse available in the region, Father Dion, along with his fellow missionary, Father Meeus, cared for the sick during the flu epidemic that continued in waves, right through January and February.

“After the people here felt a little bit better, it was the people in the camps who fell ill. And so it went on,” Father Dion said.

“Fortunately, Father Meeus and myself, we weren’t sick so we could take care of people and make them better. We had some medicine, particularly penicillin.”

This stock was sent up during the summer. When they ran out of medicine, a plane dropped additional supplies.

Father Dion remembers how he would mix two vials together - one with a powerful penicillin powder and the other containing a thick peanut oil - and then inject the sick.

The priests tended to the sick during the day.

“We had to bring in blocks of snow or ice to make water, carry out the refuse and try to maintain the igloo in a good condition,” Father Dion recalled. “We had to, there was no choice.”

Only one Inuk man stayed healthy, due to some natural immunity.

“We didn’t know why [he didn’t become ill], but he helped us. He distributed the food. Of course, the people weren’t very hungry. And there was food. The igloos were full. Before the epidemic, there had been a good walrus hunt,” Father Dion said. “We brought them big pilot biscuits, tea and sugar.”

In the evening, the priests would use the radio to call the nearest hospital, the St. Luke’s mission hospital, that was located in Pangnirtung. There, they received medical advice from a doctor who had previously worked north of Quaqtaq at a radio transmission station.

“He went back south to university and became a doctor and returned north to care for Inuit long before the government did anything,” Father Dion said.

Sometimes the quality of the radio contact with Pangnirtung was good, sometimes it was bad. All missions had radio transmitters in those days, old radios recuperated from the army.

Among those 100 or so people who gathered around the mission for assistance, the death toll from flu was high.

“There were deaths. I can’t say exactly how many, but there were about eight or nine,” Father Dion said.

At the height of the epidemic, when everyone was sick, there wasn’t anyone to bury the dead.

“So we put the bodies in a shed, and we decided to bury them later. In any event, it was very cold so there was no problem. When the epidemic was over when we wanted to bury them, then the problem was to find wood for the coffins,” he recalled.

Father Dion carried on his dual role as priest and doctor for many more years.

“We were doctors, too, because there were no nurses or doctors, so in the villages where there were missionaries, the priest acted as a doctor, too.

In some places, it was the store manager. I served as a doctor for 15 years. The first resident nurse [in Kangiqsujuaq] was the wife of the school director, so it must have been in 1972 or 1973,” he said.

Father Dion said in normal times Inuit during his early years in Nunavik were very healthy.

“There were few people sick. What was most common was gastro-enteritis found in adoptive babies, which often degenerated into meningitis and then death,” he said. “That’s the way it was during this period. It was a different era.”

Slowly, after the flu epidemic, people returned to their normal activities, although there were some who remained weak and ill.

“One man from Salluit became blind,” Father Dion said. “People here were weakened. The majority were all right, but some were marked for the rest of their lives.”

This year in Kangiqsujuaq - unlike in that very “different era” when Father Dion fought the flu with more faith than anything else - there have been few cases of influenza due to the ongoing flu vaccination campaign in Nunavik.

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