Native leaders in pandemic mode

Schools are closed, public events have been cancelled and people are scrambling for masks to fight the swine flu.

WINNIPEG — Schools are closed, public events have been cancelled and people are scrambling for masks to fight the swine flu.

Leaders in some remote aboriginal communities in northeastern Manitoba, where high infection rates have caught the attention of the World Health Organization, say they are now in full pandemic mode.

“We’ve had to shut the school down. We’ve had to sanitize the whole school, the school buses, sanitize the medical transportation vehicles and also the police stations … twice a day,” Chief David Harper of the Garden Hill First Nation said Wednesday.

“We’re fighting an invisible enemy.”

Many residents are either sick or are fearful of becoming sick because they live in overcrowded homes with someone who is ill, Harper said. Travel into the community is being limited.

Harper was in Winnipeg on Wednesday to meet with other chiefs and to pick up medical supplies such as facial masks, which he says have run out in his community.

There is no hospital in the region and nursing stations are overwhelmed, he said. The federal and provincial governments have flown more doctors and nurses into the area in recent days, but it is not yet clear whether the spread can be contained.

Manitoba health officials confirmed a second case of swine flu in Garden Hill on top of a handful of confirmed cases in nearby St. Theresa Point. More than a dozen other people have been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms — all in a remote area 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg that has fewer than 10,000 residents.

One of the youngest victims is 18-month-old Peter Flett, who is recovering after being released from hospital in Winnipeg. The young boy was feverish for several days last week, but his mother says she was unable to convince staff at the Garden Hill nursing station to take his case seriously.

The boy was eventually airlifted to Winnipeg after waiting several hours for a flight.

Experts believe influenza can hit aboriginal communities hard because of underlying conditions such as poverty, overcrowded homes and high rates of other diseases such as diabetes. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was tough on reserves and wiped out large segments of the population.

The World Health Organization has expressed concern about aboriginals in Canada and swine flu. While the vast majority of people do not fall seriously ill, 27 Manitobans have been on hospital ventilators — more than half of them aboriginal.

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