More than 20 new cases of tuberculosis have been identified in the Nunavut community of Pangnirtung since May as the worst outbreak of TB in the territory in five years continues.
The Nunavut Department of Health announced Friday that health workers have diagnosed four new cases of active tuberculosis and 18 new latent infections in the Baffin Island hamlet of 1,500 in the past three months, bringing the total to 161 cases identified since January of 2021.
Patients with active tuberculosis are infectious and can suffer symptoms that include fevers, drenching sweats, muscle aches, weight loss, deep fatigue and a nagging, sometimes bloody cough. Latent TB infections don’t make patients sick and aren’t contagious, but put them at risk of developing active TB in the future.
A Globe and Mail investigation published in June found that frontline nurses at Pangnirtung’s understaffed health centre begged for help last summer as tuberculosis cases piled up and public health officials put off declaring an outbreak.
Chief Public Health Officer Michael Patterson and the Nunavut Department of Health declared a TB outbreak in Pangnirtung on Nov. 25, but declined to say at the time how many cases had been identified in the community.
The territorial government continues to argue that releasing TB case counts for any of Nunavut’s 25 fly-in communities outside the context of an outbreak would risk identifying patients and stigmatizing entire communities.
They only revealed case tallies for Pangnirtung in May after The Globe and Mail reported from the community, and after Mayor Eric Lawlor pressed for transparency. The government agreed at the time to publish updates on the Pangnirtung outbreak every three months, which is what led to the release of new numbers on Friday.
Nunavut is still declining to release TB case numbers for any other communities.
In some recent years, TB rates in Inuit communities have been nearly 300 times higher than the rates among non-Indigenous people born in Canada. That disparity prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to vow in 2018 to eliminate the bacterial infection in Inuit communities by 2030.
The coronavirus pandemic siphoned attention and effort away from that goal and made it harder to gauge progress. The most recent data from the Public Health Agency of Canada show there were 72.2 active cases of TB per 100,000 population among Inuit in 2020, compared with a national case rate of 4.7 per 100,000.
That’s down significantly from 188.7 cases per 100,000 in 2019 and from a 10-year annual average of 184.14 per 100,000 from 2010 to 2019. But the drop likely reflects cases of TB going undiagnosed in the first year of the pandemic, experts on the disease have said.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said recently that her government remains committed to the TB elimination pledge. She has urged Nunavut’s Health Minister and the territory’s top Inuit organization to agree on a TB action plan that would unlock more of the $13-million Ottawa allocated to fighting TB in Nunavut in 2018.
The Globe and Mail’s health reporter Kelly Grant is taking an in-depth look at health care in Nunavut and the challenges its residents face accessing it. Over the course of 2022, she’ll examine why the territory’s residents have some of the worst health outcomes in the country and what changes are needed to deliver better care.If you have information to help inform The Globe’s reporting on Nunavut, please e-mail email@example.com