Tuberculosis bacilli, the causative agent for tuberculosis, are seen under an electron microscope in this image made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Toronto to host global meeting on fighting TB
Updated Wed. Nov. 12 2008 6:58 PM ET
Native leaders and health experts from 60 countries will meet Thursday in Toronto to craft a global plan to cut alarming tuberculosis rates among the poor.
The insidious and highly contagious lung disease - once thought to be all but vanquished - is still thriving in many quarters, including several native communities in Canada.
Overcrowded housing and lack of health care are blamed for about 1,600 new Canadian cases each year.
The potentially fatal illness - known as the plague of the poor - can be successfully treated but there is no effective vaccine.
"Between 2002 and 2006, the rates for the on-and off-reserve population were 29 times higher than the non-aboriginal population," said Angus Toulouse, Ontario vice-chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
"And the Inuit, their TB rate is 90 times higher."
The assembly is co-hosting Thursday's meeting along with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, representing 53 Arctic communities.
The Global Plan to Stop TB will push for native-led economic solutions along with more access to treatment and better tracking of cases and underlying causes. Its goal is to cut by half the incidence of TB among aboriginal people around the world by 2015.
"As the World Health Organization has called it, it's a disease of poverty," Toulouse said. "And the best cure for this poverty is employment and economic development opportunities."
The Public Health Agency of Canada reported 1,621 cases of new active and relapsed TB in 2006 - an average of about five cases for every 100,000 people.
In Nunavut, however, the number soared to a country-wide high of 156 cases per 100,000 population.
The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada suggest at least 70 people died across Canada in 2004 of TB-related causes.
Newly minted federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who hails from Nunavut, knows the issue all too well.
"She does recognize that tuberculosis is a big problem," said her press secretary, Josee Bellemare.
Several government officials will attend the conference which received $350,000 in federal funds, Bellemare added.
Ottawa spends $6.5 million a year to prevent and control tuberculosis, with a goal of eliminating the disease by 2050.
Recent outbreaks have been reported in native communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
"It's hush, hush," said Lori Lemaigre of La Loche, Sask., about 650 kilometres north of Prince Albert.
The 30-year-old man was successfully treated two years ago for tuberculosis and meningitis.
People don't like to talk about TB, but it is widespread in a community where two or three families often share a three-bedroom house, Lemaigre said.
"You know whoever has it. The TB worker's always driving by with their pills, honking outside the door." Indeed, tuberculosis is a major focus for nursing stations in remote native enclaves.
Health Canada says TB rates among First Nations have dropped dramatically from early in the last century when reported cases reached 700 per 100,000 population.
The Tuberculosis Elimination Strategy was launched in 1992 to drive down rates to one per 100,000 by 2010. But native leaders now say that goal looks far out of reach.
"There really is a need for something more," said Toulouse. "It's unfortunate that when we had billions of dollars in (federal budget) surpluses there was continued inaction ... but we're not going to go away.
"Continuing with the status quo is only costing the government, in the long run, that much more."