Nunavut’s tuberculosis cases climb to 33
“We always have a high rate. It’s a disease of poverty”
Tuberculosis is more common in third-world countries than in wealthy Canada, but in Nunavut, health officials have counted 33 cases of the disease just three-quarters of the way into the year.
That means that 2005 could still top the year 2000, when 48 cases were reported in the territory, the highest number since the creation of Nunavut.
The numbers fluctuate, due to the small population, but “we always have a high rate,” said Dr. Geraldine Osborne, Nunavut’s assistant chief medical officer since 2000.
There are several reasons for this, Osborne says, but chief among them are the poor conditions in which many Nunavummiut live.
“It’s a disease of poverty,” Osborne said.
Healthy people can carry the infection for years with no effects. But people with poor health – those that don’t get enough food to eat, or enough healthy food – can come down with the disease.
Many elders were exposed to the disease during the tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1950s, and still carry the infection with them. Now, they can pass that infection on to people living in close quarters with them.
Tuberculosis is a serious illness caused by bacteria (germs) that normally infect the lungs, but can also attack other parts of the body such as the bones, joints or glands.
The disease can be cured, but it takes about six months of taking three or more types of medicine, and otherwise staying healthy.
People suspected of having the illness are tested before they are put on medication. They may be treated in hospital for a short time, but some patients are never hospitalized, and almost all patients return to their homes while they continue to take their medication.
To make sure that patients are eating well during this time, health workers can sometimes provide meal vouchers.
In Nunavut, the medicine is usually delivered at the health centre, where patients must go every day and take their pills in front of a nurse. It’s important that they are actually seen taking the medication because untreated, people with tuberculosis can infect others.
In many cases, people with TB will not see any symptoms. Others will develop a persistent cough lasting over three weeks, and may also experience night sweats, weight loss and chest pains.
Not all cases of TB are infectious, but when a case is found, health professionals will track down people they’ve been in contact with to make sure that nobody else gets sick.
In Nunavut, that can often mean testing 40 to 50 people who have been in close contact with the patient. That is, people who have shared the same airspace for a long period of time.
All patients with TB are treated confidentially.