In the critical days after dozens of Manitoba aboriginals fell severely ill with swine flu, Health Canada hesitated in sending desperately needed hand sanitizer to native towns because of concerns that people would ingest the alcohol-based gel.
The revelation arose Tuesday during a Senate probe of the federal government's response to the H1N1 outbreak on reserves and exposes yet another fissure in the $1-billion national pandemic plan that many aboriginal leaders say has failed them.
Kim Barker, public health adviser for the Assembly of First Nations, told the Senate committee on aboriginal peoples she was "devastated" when she first heard that health officials were spending precious time debating the wisdom of sending hand sanitizer - which can contain up to 70-per-cent alcohol - to the communities.
"We heard that ... people were spending days discussing the pros and cons of a non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer versus an alcohol-based one because of the concerns about addictions in communities," she said. "It was absolutely outrageous."
A senior health official confirmed to the committee that chiefs and public-health officials debated the sanitizer issue at length in the nascent stages of the outbreak last month. "The discussion was with the best interests of our clients in mind," said Anne-Marie Robinson, assistant deputy minister of Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. "We have had some rare experiences in our communities where we have had theft of hand sanitizers. … We do have communities where we have large proportions of people who suffer from addiction. … We have had a number of people come forward, and some evidence, where this could potentially put people at risk."
During late May and early June, the mild flu outbreak erupted into a full-blown crisis on several of Manitoba's remote fly-in reserves. Dozens of flu-stricken aboriginals had to be flown from a collection of towns in the Island Lake region, 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, and several were hooked up to respirators. At one point, two-thirds of all flu victims on respirators in the province were aboriginal.
Even as conditions worsened, chiefs in the region complained that the federal government had not delivered flu masks, respirators and hand sanitizer - items it is obliged to supply in accordance with the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan.
One Manitoba chief, David Harper of Garden Hill First Nation, became so frustrated waiting for federal flu-fighting supplies he flew to Winnipeg to buy them himself.
The federal government eventually delivered 2,500 bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer to his dry reserve, but only after Mr. Harper waited 21/2 weeks and travelled to Ottawa to plead with health officials.
"The alcohol issue is a legitimate issue," he said, adding that any undistributed sanitizer is now under lock and key. "Why after all that time they still sent alcohol-based sanitizer is worth looking at."
The AFN is now asking for a task force to study why the outbreak was so severe on reserves.
Valerie Gideon, a spokeswoman with the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, could not confirm Tuesday that the sanitizer debate was to blame for delayed shipments to native communities.
But chiefs from small towns where the flu is slowly abating seem convinced of it.
"People here needed [hand sanitizer]to keep themselves safe and save their lives," said David McDougall, chief of St. Theresa Point First Nation, a fly-in community that sent more than a dozen flu patients to Winnipeg with severe respiratory problems. "The whole community was put at risk because someone was worried that a handful of people might abuse the stuff."