Reinforcements tackle Sanikiluaq flu bug

Schools, public buildings closed as Sanikiluaq suffers


A doctor and nurse – who were due to be followed by two more nurses – finally arrived in Sanikiluaq from Winnipeg on Tuesday night to help the community’s one healthy nurse and two sick colleagues deal with a community-wide outbreak of a flu-like illness.

On Monday, 70 people in Sanikiluaq had visited the nursing station complaining of fever and cough.

During the weekend, Sanikiluaq’s health and hamlet officials had already decided to close the local school and other public buildings, in an effort keep residents at home and away from contagion.

This move came after an infant came down with whooping cough and many others in the community were showing signs of illness.

“We felt it was in the best interest of everyone to close things down for a few days,” said Brian Fleming, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer who, with two other employees, was still tending to urgent work.

Fleming said illness spreads quickly in this community of 700.

Elders recall the tuberculosis, measles and flu epidemics that hit the Eastern Arctic hard in the 1940s, but the danger of devastating epidemics still exists.

According to Dr. James Talbot, Nunavut’s new chief medical officer, the illness laying Sanikiluaq low is probably a flu, one of two strains of influenza that are expected to hit Canada this winter.

Talbot didn’t think the illness in Sanikiluaq is likely to be whooping cough, because most residents have already been vaccinated against this illness and its symptoms are unique.

“With whooping cough, the child starts coughing and can’t catch a breath. That accounts for the whooping noise,” Talbot said.

Babies sick with whooping cough can turn blue and even have seizures.

Flu, on the other hand, spreads more quickly and causes chills, fever, aches and coughs.

However, flu can be life-threatening for the elderly, very young or chronically ill.

The medical team from the University of Manitoba’s J.A.Hildes Northern Medical Unit in Winnipeg arrived with testing materials that will allow them to see exactly what illness they are faced with in Sanikiluaq this time around.

Nearly four years ago, Sanikiluaq was also struck by a flu epidemic. Then, Sanikiluaq’s school had also closed, due to lack of students and fear of contagion.

And, then, as now, doctors who supply health services to Nunavut’s Kivalliq region were concerned about what they were hearing from local health workers. Their concern was that, in a remote or contained location such as Sanikiluaq, up to 100 per cent of people can be affected.

To curb the spread of the illness, community members learned how to use a new medicine called Zanamavir that’s delivered in hockey puck-like inhalers. Used properly, Zanamavir can prevent influenza if treatment is started in the first 36 hours.

A similar kind of treatment may be warranted now, said Talbot.

Before the 2000 epidemic wore itself out, there were six medevacs, although no one died. So far, during this outbreak, only a five-month old baby was likely to be airlifted out.

Talbot expects that this flu will surface in other communities. To avoid coming down with the illness, he recommends that elders, the very young, or caregivers receive flu shots.

He suggests frequent hand-washing by all ages as a way of keeping flu germs away.

And to avoid spreading the disease, anyone who feels sick should stay at home and away from public places such as school or offices where it’s very easy to infect others.

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