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Grave concern about the flu

Kathleen Lippa
Northern News Services

Cambridge Bay (Dec 15/03) - Dr. Roger Lake, regional physician for the Kitikmeot, has seen healthy people knocked off their feet for five days by the Influenza A virus.

NNSL photo

Candice Barlow, public health nurse, vaccinates News/North reporter Kathleen Lippa against the flu. - Neils Christensen/NNSL photo

"I had a young, 20-year-old guy, a construction worker working on the new health centre here in Cambridge Bay tell me 'I thought I was going to die.' That is how bad it is," Lake said last week.

Calling the Influenza A outbreak in Nunavut "a matter of grave concern" and a threat to the health and safety of Nunavummiut, Dr. James Talbot, chief medical health officer for Nunavut, issued a strong directive to health care workers last week.

"The strain confronting our population is highly mobile, subject to complications, potentially fatal to people in high risk categories such as the elderly, the very young, and those with cardiac or respiratory problems," Talbot said.

Health care professionals who have scheduled leave coming up soon, have been told to be ready to return to work at any time.

Talbot said the latest directives do not automatically mean workers will be working longer and harder. It is a cautionary measure.

"In Sanikiluaq, for instance, several nurses became ill at the same time as there was a major outbreak in the community," Talbot said.

Not enough staff

"The community health centre was slammed with a lot more people being ill and they had not enough staff to handle regular duties. That's a problem," he said.

"If we were in a severe situation where it wasn't possible to solve it by reallocating people who were already in the region, and we weren't able to get help from outside, then we would look at telling people they weren't going to be able to take their leave at the present time."

Dr. Lake said the latest directives are nothing new to health care professionals in the North.

They are used to working long hours, and travelling at the last minute.

"I'm on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Lake said. "I'm always at the ready. The nurses are always at the ready. It's part of the job up here," Lake said.

"In the North, it is absolutely necessary to be flexible," he said.

According to Lake, there was virtually no flu season last year in Nunavut.

This year, in October Sanikiluaq was hit hard first, shutting down the community for two weeks.

Cambridge Bay was next.

"We learned a lot from Sanikiluaq," Lake said.

In Sanikiluaq, a small island of 700 people, nurses got sick with the flu as well. This greatly limited that community's ability to fight the flu.

When people in Cambridge Bay began coming down with flu-like symptoms health care workers there took more precautions, bracing for the flu they had already seen devastate one community in Nunavut.

"Our outbreak lasted one week," said Lake. "It was very rewarding to work in such a co-operative manner."

During the outbreak, store owners wore masks. Community events were cancelled. Sick people stayed home. More people got the flu vaccine.

In the end, one elder had to be medevaced to Yellowknife, and one infant died with symptoms consistent with a flu-like illness, said Lake.

The flu vaccine is running low in Nunavut, as Kugluktuk, Gjoa Haven, Kugaaruk and Taloyoak cope with their sick people.

The territory has placed an order for more flu vaccine, Talbot said.

"We have submitted a request for that second vaccine run," he said.

"But at the moment we do have enough."

Talbot sees Nunavut's reduced flu vaccine stocks as a positive sign more people are getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Lake is already envisioning a poster campaign for next year to encourage people to get the flu shot.

"A lot of people say 'My little baby doesn't like needles. They cry when they get a needle.' That's their excuse for not getting the flu shot. Well," Lake said, "When your child is being medevaced with the flu, they will be getting lots of needles, IV, and everything else."