NEWS: Nunavut December 08, 2009 - 3:22 pm

New swine flu cases flare up in Nunavut

Health department still refuses to say which communities hit by outbreak


Nunavut health officials have identified 32 new, lab-confirmed cases of the H1N1 swine flu virus, health minister Tagak Curley told the Legislative Assembly Monday.

But Curley stopped short of declaring that the second wave of the outbreak, long predicted and feared by public health officials, has arrived.

“I’m not in the position as a minister to confirm whether or not this is the second wave, but our chief medical health officer [Isaac Sobol] did indicate it could possibly be,” Curley said in response to question from Quttiktuq MLA Ron Elliott.

Those new cases, identified since Oct. 1, bring the total number of swine flu cases to 629 since the outbreak began this past spring. No one among the most recent batch of cases has been hospitalized, Curley said.

The minister said the health department will step up efforts to get more Nunavummiut vaccinated against H1N1. A two-week vaccination blitz in early November doled out flu shots to 60 per cent of the territory’s population.

“That’s the only cure that we have right now,” Curley told reporters. “It’s important that those who haven’t taken the flu shot do get that shot.” He also urged Nunavummiut to wash their hands regularly and stay home if they’re sick.

Also in response to a question from Elliott, Curley once again refused to reveal which communities have been struck by the latest cases of swine flu. Curley and unelected officials have consistently declared the topic off-limits, saying that no other jurisdiction in Canada has released such information.

That didn’t sit well with Iqaluit West MLA Paul Okalik, who reminded Curley that Elaine Keenan Bengts, Nunavut’s information and privacy commissioner, told MLAs in October she could see no reason to withhold which communities are facing swine flu outbreaks.

“I can’t think of any reason why the name of a community that has been hit by a communicable health problem such as H1N1 shouldn’t be named,” Okalik quoted Keenan Bengts as saying.

Curley wouldn’t budge, refusing to release the information to Okalik and Elliott inside the house, or to reporters during the break.

Public health agencies across the country aren’t convinced there’s any medical reason to release geographic information about swine flu cases, Curley told reporters.

The health department also rebuffed an access to information request filed by Nunatsiaq News seeking the information.

In a written response, the department said releasing H1N1 case numbers by community is not allowed under sections of the Disease Registries Act governing confidentiality and disclosure, even though Nunatsiaq News has never asked for information that would identify individuals who’ve contracted the disease.

But five pages of internal communications released by the health department show Curley asked deputy health minister Alex Campbell this past June if he was “allowed to name communities” following community radio reports that swine flu had appeared in Rankin Inlet.

“No, we are not allowed to name communities,” Campbell told his boss.

The documents also reveal that Jean Conrad, the director of the Kitikmeot regional health centre in Cambridge Bay reported worries by the “economic community” in that community about whether it’s safe to travel to hamlets affected by H1N1.

“It has been brought to our attention that airlines serving the North are questioning whether or not it is advisable to travel to ‘specific’ regions [or] communities without some precautionary measures in place, as the virus may be present in that area,” Conrad wrote in an email dated June 12.

“At some point will we be able to release the actual community names of those affected most by this virus?”

Less than 20 minutes later, Isaac Sobol, the chief medical officer, replied with a page-long email stating that people are as likely to get sick from contact with infected people who haven’t been formally diagnosed with H1N1, as they are from lab-confirmed cases.

“Naming communities with lab-confirmed cases of H1N1 could lead to a false sense of security, leading people to think they are not at risk of developing influenza if they avoid those particular communities,” Sobol wrote, without offering any evidence to support the claim.

The health department has made public regional breakdowns of the number of lab-confirmed cases, Sobol wrote.