Kashechewan skin infections exacerbated by 'social emergency'
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, March 24, 2016 2:02PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 24, 2016 10:03PM EDT
One of three doctors who flew to a remote northern Ontario community to look into reports of dozens of serious skin infections said the team has examined 51 people and found no other cases that looked “remotely like” three children airlifted out for treatment after photographs of their blistered faces were shared widely on Facebook.
Dr. Gordon Green, who is Chief of Staff at the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, told CTV News Channel over the phone from Kashechewan First Nation that there is no medical emergency in the community, although he still believes there is “a social emergency.”
Dr. Green said the skin disorder eczema was the most common problem observed in the 1,800-person fly-in community on James Bay. Thirty-five of the 51 examined got that diagnosis.
Dr. Green said eczema is common in the general population, with up to 20 per cent of Canadians experiencing it in their lifetimes. He said it can get especially bad in the Far North, because heating used to combat the frigid air causes skin to dry out and crack.
What makes it a “social emergency” is the fact that eczema can be made worse without “bathing regularly to keep the bacterial count that we all have on our skin low.” Dr. Green said the expenses of living in the Far North can make basic hygiene, including bathing, difficult.
CTV News correspondent Katie Simpson observed while reporting this week from Kashechewan that a regular-sized bottle of laundry soap sells for nearly $37, compared to $10 in Toronto. High prices are related to community’s isolation, and the fact it is only be accessible by plane, boat or ice road during the winter.
Dr. Green also said poor access to health care can exacerbate problems, like infections from eczema.
“I think that enhancing the nursing care, enhancing the number of physicians in the community is important,” he said. “I think we need to educate people to manage their health problems.”
Pearl-Jean Sutherland said her four-month-old baby Mikisow Martin was diagnosed with a case of infected eczema after visiting a hospital in Timmins, Ont.
Sutherland said that health care providers at Kashechewan’s nursing station, which she had visited multiple times, had told her it was only “a heat rash and really dry skin.”
Six-month-old Jenayah Stephen, one of the three children photographed and airlifted out of the community this week, was treated in a Timmins hospital for the bacterial infection impetigo and released.
In addition to eczema and impetigo, doctors found one family with scabies, a skin disorder caused by a mite that spreads mainly through skin-to-skin contact. Doctors also found some cases of psoriasis, which is an auto-immune disorder that can be triggered by cold weather, stress, smoking, alcohol and certain medications.
Health Minister Jane Philpott said Monday that water had been tested and it was determined not to be the source of the problem, as some in the community had suggested.
Dr. Green said he supports testing the local water again and, if it is found to be safe, "then word needs to get out to everyone."
NDP MP Angus, who represents the constituents of Kashechewan, said Monday that a committee would look at “water safety, black mould and the issue of whether the sewage lagoon is leaking into the water system.”
“This crisis wasn’t accidental – it is systemic,” said Angus, who recently wrote a book about the government’s failures to meet commitments to First Nations people living on James Bay.
First Nations leaders decided to declare a public health emergency last month, partly due to the skin issues.
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation that includes Kashechewan, told The Canadian Press that he was pleased to see the children whose photos were shared were getting treatment.
"We also need to look at the longer term,” he said, “… some of the determinants of health: housing, water, and education, everything else that contributes to the health and well-being of our families."
With a report from CTV’s Katie Simpson in Kashechewan