Inuit leader: Canada needs a pandemic plan for Inuit

“We were lucky this time, but we might not be so lucky next time”

By JANE GEORGE

Canada needs a pandemic plan for Inuit and by Inuit, Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said in Ottawa at an Oct. 21 session of the standing Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology.

“We need it to be prepared with us and not for us. It must reflect our realities and include what we have learned from our journey with H1N1. It must be a meaningful plan, able to guide us in the future to the level of preparedness that we deserve,” she told the Senate committee members, who are studying Canada’s pandemic preparedness.

A year and a half after the first cases of H1N1 were diagnosed in Inuit regions, there is nothing in the current national pandemic planning document which addressed the challenges of managing a pandemic in Inuit communities, Simon said.

“We were lucky this time, but we might not be so lucky next time,” Simon said.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq introduced the idea of an Inuit specific annex to the Canadian pandemic plan to her provincial and territorial colleagues last year, Simon said.

“[But] they turned her down. We feel they were wrong,” Simon said.

Canada also needs to address the disparities between Inuit and other Canadians in areas like housing, Simon said, citing the human development index, which measures life expectancy, standard of living and education in various populations.

This index ranks Canada at fifth in the world, but Inuit communities in Canada would come in 98th among the 177 countries ranked, she said.

Delivery of even basic health care in Inuit communities remains a concern, she said, noting that if a province felt that it could not actually deliver the service to these fly-in communities during a pandemic, the federal government has no plan.

During a pandemic, medical personnel might even decide to leave the North to join their families, Simon suggested.

In spite of Nunavut’s health care challenges, Dr. Isaac Sobol, Nunavut’s chief medical officer, said the territory’s response to H1N1 was “very positive.”

To cope with the pandemic — which turned out to be less severe than anticipated, Nunavut spent money that was not in its budget. This continues to give the health department an outstanding deficit, Sobol said.

Although Nunavut received all the immunization supplies it needed, there were no guidelines or a task force for aboriginal communities, he pointed out.

Instead Nunavut communities were considered to be “isolated” and “rural.”

That’s despite evidence from an expert group which found that aboriginal people, regardless of place of residence or socio economic status, were “more vulnerable to adverse outcomes from H1N1 than other population groups,” Sobol said.

A request from the chief medical officers of health to have a meeting to discuss the impact of H1N1 specifically in aboriginal communities lacked support and never took place, he said.

Sobol also called attention to the poor living conditions in Nunavut during his presentation to the Senate committee.

“Where you have 70 per cent of preschool children living in homes that are food insecure. It is a cauldron for rapid dissemination of communicable disease. We see this every day and every week in Nunavut,” Sobol stated.

“From January 1 until October 1, we have had 90 new cases of active tuberculosis. We feel this is partly a result of the socio economic situation in which we live.”

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