'Social emergency': Kashechewan skin problems blamed on poverty, overcrowding
A doctor sent to examine rashes and severe sores affecting children in a remote Ontario First Nations community says the problem is “not really a medical emergency but a social emergency.”
Dr. Gordon Green is one of three doctors flown this week to Kashechewan First Nation, after NDP MP Charlie Angus shared horrific images of the skin problems on social media.
No single cause for the skin problems has been determined but doctors found cases of eczema, a non-contagious skin disease, and a few suspected cases of scabies. Dozens of children have been affected, and at least three were airlifted out of the community for treatment.
Eczema is most commonly caused by genetics but may also be triggered by allergens and irritants. The condition can be aggravated by unsanitary conditions, according to Dr. Green.
Unsanitary homes are common in Kashechewan, where incomes are low and a regular-sized bottle of laundry soap sells for nearly $37, compared to $10 in Toronto. High prices are a result of the fact that the community is so isolated it can only be accessed by plane, boat or ice road.
When this is the price of laundry detergent, it's hard to maintain sanitary living conditions. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/XFNleybqWD— Katie Simpson (@KatieSimpsonCTV) March 23, 2016
“It creates real difficulty in trying to maintain usual measures of cleanliness,” said Dr. Green.
Scabies rashes, meanwhile, are caused by a tiny mite and mostly spread through skin-to-skin contact. The mite thrives in crowded living conditions that are very common in Kashechewan.
Chief Leo Friday said that skin problems are common on the reserve. “It’s a nightmare.”
Dr. Green also noted that there is mistrust in the local water system, but that the skin conditions do not appear to be water related.
Health Minister Jane Philpott, who is a doctor, said Monday that children are not suffering from a water-related condition. She said the water was tested and found to be safe within the past week.
Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday that the images “exemplify problems with poverty and overcrowding.”
“Every kid deserves to grow up healthy,” Bennett told CTV’s Power Play, adding that she saw similar problems 40 years ago as a doctor in northern Ontario.
MP Angus, who represents the constituents of Kashechewan, said on Facebook 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.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said Monday that the situation speaks to why northern Ontario First Nations leaders decided to declare a public health emergency last month.
"It was good to hear government officials commit to getting these children out for an assessment and hopefully treatment," Fiddler said.
"We also need to look at the longer term ... some of the determinants of health: housing, water, and education, everything else that contributes to the health and well-being of our families."
Budget promises $8.4 billion
Bennett told Power PLay that an $8.4-billion plan announced in Monday’s federal budget will help close the gap in living standards between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the funding commitment “historic” and “a significant first step,” but some have questioned whether it is sufficient.
Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of the northern Manitoba First Nations group MKO said the money is “a deposit on a historic reset,” but added that “it’s not enough.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Monday that the Liberals “broke their promises” including on the gap between education for on-reserve students and students in provincial schools.
Bennett told Power Play “there’s good money there for both the educational programs and probably twice as much as we had in the platform for the schools themselves.”
“We know kids can’t learn when it’s overcrowded and mouldy and they can’t feel good about themselves,” she added.
On the topic of on-reserve water quality, Bennett said the government “committed in the platform that the boil water advisories will end in five years,” calling that a “hard metric” that the government will be accountable for.
It’s unclear whether the $1.8 billion devoted to ending more than 130 on-reserve boil water advisories will be sufficient, considering that a study last year found that $2 billion spent on the problem between 2001 and 2013 led to “little progress.”
With a report from CTV’s Katie Simpson in Kashechewan and files from The Canadian Press