Nunavut’s battle with tuberculosis far from over

On World TB day, no one should have to deal with the infectious disease



Louisa Issumatardjuak doesn’t want history to repeat.

The Arviat women spent three years in a tuberculosis sanitarium in the 1970s and is committed to eradicating the disease by speaking up about healthy living — a longstanding challenge in a territory where cigarettes are cheaper than vegetables.

Luckily, modern medicine has replaced the lengthy hospital stays Issumatardjuak and others endured in the past.

“I’m glad I had to go through it because at least I don’t have it anymore,” she said of her years away from family and school.

Issumatardjuak hopes events like World TB Day on March 25 raise awareness about the disease.

“People are lucky now they don’t have to leave town for long periods of time. They just have to take pills and don’t have to be away from home,” she said.

Japeth Owingayak, 28, also of Arviat, was diagnosed with TB a year ago. He never felt sick. He learned of his condition after a friend tested positive for the disease and Owingayak was tested during a follow-up procedure.

The nine-month treatment, although less rigorous than Issumatardjuak’s, required some adjustments to his lifestyle.

“When I was going hunting, I took the pills in advance. Now, I’m healthy. Being healthy is better than being sick. I may be young but I was not used to taking pills,” he said.

Owingayak’s diligent bi-weekly attendance at the health centre earned him the reputation of being an ideal patient.

Nunavut has the highest rate of TB in Canada with 144 cases per 100,000 people — more than 25 times the national average of 5.5 cases for the same number of people.

In 2001, Nunavut reported 39 new cases of TB. In 2002, only 26 cases were reported. Ten cases have been reported this year to date.

While the disease has a tendency to strike young children and adults, elders who were treated for TB as children are also at risk, said Dr. Geraldine Osborne, chief medical officer for Nunavut.

To deal with the problem, the Nunavut health department has hired a territorial TB coordinator and three regional TB coordinators.

Arviat has experienced two outbreaks of TB in the past two years. While some may ask what’s wrong in the community, nurse Ann Gregor pointed to what she thinks is right with TB detection.

“Maybe because we have a good coordinator [and a good screening process] that we find all the cases,” Gregor said.

She credits a process called direct observation therapy with preventing further spread of the disease within her community and the territory.

In the case of children, the bitter tasting pills are administered twice a week at home and at school. Adults come to the health center for their nine-month course of pills.

“We literally watch them swallow the pills every time. It’s tedious, it’s time consuming and it works,” she said.

While good hygiene and nutrition play an important role in fighting the disease, so too do living conditions.

“Any place where there’s overcrowding you can get TB. The main problem is housing. Nine months out of the year people are in their houses. People are all together in the house and all together in the school,” Gregor said.

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