Historic trauma aside, TB remains a reality in Inuit communities
“The rate of tuberculosis is outrageous, but it’s eminently solvable”
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized today for the treatment of Inuit who suffered from tuberculosis between the 1940s and 1960s, the respiratory infection continues to take a toll on northern communities.
In the Baffin community of Cape Dorset, health officials are a few weeks into a community-wide screening clinic, which will see most of the hamlet’s 1,500 residents tested for TB this winter.
Funded largely through Health Canada, the 12-week-long clinic has brought in X-ray technicians, respiratory therapists, TB specialists and top-line equipment, which has been set up in Cape Dorset’s community hall.
It’s the third clinic of its kind held over the last year in Nunavut, to respond to the North’s high rates of TB, which are some 300 times higher than among the country’s southern, non-Indigenous population.
Nunavut’s first TB screening clinic was hosted in early 2018 in Qikiqtarjuaq, where approximately 10 per cent of the local population was infected with TB.
That clinic came roughly a year after a 15-year-old girl from Qikiqtarjuaq, Ileen Kooneeliusie, died of the infectious disease in January 2017.
Since her death, two other young people from Nunavik and the Nunatsiavut region have also died of TB.
Those factors led to the creation of the federal government’s TB Task Force, which, in collaboration with Inuit groups, aims to see tuberculosis eliminated from the four regions of the Inuit Nunangat by 2030.
The government has also committed to reduce the number of active TB cases across the North by at least 50 per cent by 2025.
“The rate of tuberculosis is outrageous, but it’s eminently solvable,” said then-Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, when that task force was launched in March 2018.
Last year’s federal budget included $27.5 million allocated to TB treatment and prevention in Inuit Nunangat, which has been invested in TB awareness campaigns, screening and specialized TB care.
But leaders across Inuit Nunangat have also called on the federal government to address the root causes of tuberculosis.
“Given that TB is largely a disease of poverty, our government also has to work to address root issues such as housing, unemployment, education and economic development,” said John Main, the member of Nunavut’s legislative assembly for Arviat North–Whale Cove.
Health Canada has also added rifapentine to its list of drugs that can be used to meet urgent public health needs, with its first major rollout being in communities in Nunavut.
The drug is taken weekly over 12 weeks, whereas other TB medications are taken daily over a nine-month period.