Nunavut on SARS awareness alert

Respiratory disease has yet to show itself in the territory



Nunavut’s health department is ready for an outbreak of SARS, the flu-like disease that is spreading throughout southern Canada.

SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is thought to have originated in China. The contagious nature of the disease has forced hospital closures in Toronto and school closures in other provinces.

Although the numbers are fluid, this week there were 226 suspected or probable cases of SARS across Canada, including 188 in Ontario. It has claimed 11 lives, but the majority of those affected recover in about two weeks.

Carolina Palacios, Nunavut’s communicable disease consultant, said the territorial department of health has followed all the recommendations issued by Health Canada. Each day provinces and territories teleconference with Health Canada after it has been updated by the World Health Organization on how things are changing internationally.

Because of Nunavut’s dependence on air transportation to move patients, however, it has more to contend with than simply following recommendations on how to treat individuals in an outpatient setting.

“There are guidelines for crew flight members and for staff that may have to clean planes and for airport staff on how to deal with it,” she explained. “Because our main means of transportation is airlines these steps are very important for us.”

Ontario’s minister of health has imposed restrictions on hospitals in the province, but some previously closed institutions are slated to reopen to visitors and volunteers shortly.

That has forced Nunavut to devise an alternative plan for Nunavut patients who may need to be medevaced to Ottawa in the future for SARS treatment. Palacios said whether a patient would be accepted at a southern hospital would depend on the state of the hospital. But Baffin Regional Hospital has a contingency plan in place if a patient needs to be quarantined.

“There has been a lot of work into a possible influenza pandemic episode so a lot of that work can be applied to what we are facing at the moment,” she said.

Palacios said scientists are still struggling to understand the disease, but of the known cases, those infected have recently travelled from an infected region or been in close proximity to someone with the disease. Because of that, any cases in Nunavut will most likely be seen in people coming from the South, she said.

“We know so far at this moment that the risk of infection in Canada is very low,” she assured.

Some of the clinical symptoms of SARS are a general feeling of unwellness, a fever higher than 38 °C and a cough, or more serious respiratory difficulties. In known SARS cases, officials have learned it takes between two and 10 days to become symptomatic after being exposed.

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