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First Nations call for swine flu state of emergency
06-27-2009, 06:00 AM,
First Nations call for swine flu state of emergency
WINNIPEG — Manitoba's First Nations chiefs have declared a state of emergency and are urging the provincial and federal governments to do the same over the swine-flu pandemic — a move intended to speed up efforts to stop the spread of the deadly virus on reserves.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Ron Evans said he and his fellow chiefs want to ensure government officials are fully aware of the devastating impact the swine flu, or H1N1 virus, is having in their communities.

"The governments need to step up," Evans said at a news conference in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

"There is no plan in place. Nobody wants to accept responsibility for First Nations. There is very little combating the H1N1 pandemic. Our people are sick."

The call for action came as the province announced the number of confirmed swine-flu cases in Manitoba has jumped by 163, bringing the total to 458.

As of Monday, 37 patients with the most severe flu-like symptoms have been put on ventilators in intensive-care units.

A disproportionate number of Aboriginal people are being affected by the virus, and the cramped living conditions, lack of running water, in some cases, and high incidence of chronic illness are thought to be factors in the spread of disease on reserves.

Roughly half of all confirmed cases are First Nations residents. Various news reports have said two-thirds of patients on respirators are of First Nations, Metis or Inuit descent.

Hundreds of people began showing flu-like symptoms in May in St. Theresa Point, Man. The first confirmed case of swine flu on the reserve was detected in June, and it soon spread to neighbouring Garden Hill First Nation. Both are remote fly-in communities about 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The assembly said Wednesday there is a "rising sense of worry" about the looming fall flu season.

Earlier this week, a Senate committee heard that debate about sending alcohol-based products into communities with addiction problems may have delayed efforts to get hand sanitizer to the afflicted communities, where many residents are without running water.

That has outraged some Aboriginal leaders, who have called for an apology from Health Canada.

According to the department, once the decision to send hand sanitizer to northern Manitoba reserves was made, the product was received in a timely manner.

"It is partially racism and partly ignorance," Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch, the representative for Manitoba's northern reserves, said Wednesday. "I want to make sure that an apology comes forward from the minister of health on behalf of her department, as well as the bureaucrats."

Garden Hill Chief David Harper is also looking for an apology and explanation.

Harper said he waited for more than two weeks for hand sanitizer and other supplies to arrive, by which point he already had purchased $15,000 worth of merchandise.

"Nobody said anything about why there was a holdback," said Harper.

"They could have called us, they could have let us know they had a concern on this. But what I think, personally is, they weren't even ready. I know for a fact they weren't ready, because nothing kicked in right away."

Evans and 11 other chiefs described the response as "a political and bureaucratic nightmare."

Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald said the province didn't have a specific answer to the chiefs' call Wednesday, because the province has effectively been in a state of emergency since April.

The province calls it Incident Command Status, instead.

"It's not business as usual in the health-care system," she said.

Oswald said she and members of the province's health-incident command team have taken a number of measures to deal with the pandemic, including invoking an emergency provision in the collective agreements of doctors and nurses to reassign them where they're needed, postponing elective surgeries to build capacity in the hospital system for intensive-care patients, and having First Nations leaders participate directly in its pandemic response structure.

A call to action has also been issued to doctors and nurses throughout the province, asking them to "rearrange their holidays and their lives" and sign up for shifts up North. More than a dozen have done so thus far, and another 40 are waiting to go, she said.

Oswald said she spoke to Evans on Wednesday and asked for a list of areas where the province hasn't delivered, and he wasn't able to provide any specific shortcomings.

© Copyright © Canwest News Service

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