Home News Spreading awareness of tuberculosis in Nunavut

Spreading awareness of tuberculosis in Nunavut

by Alexia Martel-Desjardins November 13, 2018
Spreading awareness of tuberculosis in Nunavut

See Change Initiative hosts fundraiser to expose unseen epidemic

“Last year my grandson almost died,” said Martha Newkingat, an elder from Qikiqtarjuaq whose family has struggled with tuberculosis. “He was in the hospital for three months in Ottawa and they actually said he was going to die because his lungs were failing […]. We rely on you white people so much that it’s kind of hard trying to take over when we’re asked. We’re so used to people coming and telling us this and that.”

Newkingat gave a moving testimony, alongside other Inuit community members, in a video presentation on Nov. 8 during the event Tackling TB in Nunavut: A Night of Photos and Stories. The organization See Change Initiative (SCI), whose mission consists of training community members to work as a bridge between nurses and Inuit people affected by tuberculosis (TB), organized the event.

Although Canada has reduced TB rates significantly since the 1950s, the disease still disproportionately affects First Nations people who live on reserves, as well as Inuit people. According to the Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada, “First Nations, Inuit and Métis made up just under 5 per cent of the total Canadian population, but accounted for almost 20 per cent of reported cases of active TB disease.” Statistics speak for themselves when it comes to demonstrating inequalities within Canada: “the rate of TB among Inuit was almost 300 times higher than the rate in the Canadian-born, non-Indigenous population,” said the same report.

The treatment and prevention of TB in Nunavut presents many challenges, including mistrust towards healthcare providers. In the past, many Inuit people affected by TB were sent to sanatoriums in the southern parts of the province, often staying there for extended periods of time, separated from their families and their culture, according to SCI partner Jerry Natanine.

“People went away for many years for treatment,” said Natanine, also a counsellor coordinator of Ilisaqsivik Society, a non-profit community organization in Clyde River, Nunavut. “There are cases where people came back [having] lost their language. They only knew English when they came back, and they had to work really hard to learn their Inuktitut again.”

The lack of knowledge of Inuit culture and language also impedes health professionals—who traditionally come from the south of the country—in effectively treating and preventing TB. SCI wishes to solve this problem by creating a community-led project that directly involves Inuit people in the solution, thus inverting the top-down approach adopted in the past.

“The idea is to turn the health system on its head,” said Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, general director of SCI. “To try to make it possible for them to really do the prevention, the screening and the care of their communities, and they’re in a much better place to do [so] than anyone coming from the South who does not speak Inuktitut.”

SCI cannot begin its activities until they fundraise enough money to hire the workers and train them to tackle TB in their communities. “We’ve applied for a few things and we’re talking to foundations organizing events like this, and as soon as we have the money we can start, because everything is ready to go,” said Kiddell-Monroe.

Meanwhile, TB continues to afflict Inuit and other First Nations communities. Last March, Gussie Bennett, from Nain, Labrador, died of TB at the age of 14. The stigma still attached to TB also prevents awareness about the disease. “We started hearing about TB here and there, but it’s not really talked about, it’s one of these things that kind of are spoken but not really spoken of,” said Rev. Annie Ittoshat, an Indigenous community minister of the Diocese of the Arctic.

Photo by Mackenzie Lad.

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