Tuberculosis continues to spread in the Baffin Island hamlet of Pangnirtung, although at a slower rate than earlier in the outbreak, according to the Government of Nunavut.
The Nunavut Department of Health announced on Monday that a total of 206 cases have been identified in the community since January, 2021, an increase of 22 since the last public update in November.
Two of the new cases were active TB disease, which makes patients sick and contagious. The other 20 were latent infections, which are asymptomatic and non-infectious, but put people at risk of developing active TB disease in the future.
The continued spread of TB in Pangnirtung is “really sad news,” said Markus Wilcke, the hamlet’s deputy mayor. “As long as we are having an increase in active cases it means that things are not under control. For every active case there’s often six to eight latent cases. And the latent cases are really a big concern.”
The TB outbreak in Pangnirtung, a community of about 1,500 people, is the largest to be publicly reported in Nunavut since the federal government vowed in 2018 to eliminate tuberculosis in Inuit communities, where TB rates are significantly higher than in non-Indigenous communities in Canada.
In 2021, the last year for which Nunavut has released territorywide statistics, 77 active cases were diagnosed, more than twice as many as the year before, when the COVID-19 pandemic siphoned public-health staff away from tracing and identifying TB cases.
However, Nunavut also recorded more cases in 2021 than any recent year with the exception of 2017 – calling into question Canada’s pledge to eliminate TB in Inuit lands by 2030.
Tuberculosis is caused by airborne bacteria that most often lodge in the lungs, causing fever, night sweats, exhaustion, muscle aches and a relentless, sometimes bloody cough. TB can be fatal if left untreated.
A Globe and Mail investigation published last year found that front-line nurses in Pangnirtung were begging for help in the summer of 2021 as the number of TB cases multiplied, and as senior health officials dragged their feet on publicly declaring an outbreak.
In an interview Monday, Mr. Wilcke said that Nunavut’s Health Minister, John Main, and the territory’s Chief Public Health Officer, Sean Wachtel, recently paid a visit to Pangnirtung to learn more about the situation there.
Mr. Wilcke said the health leaders made a commitment to work closely with the hamlet in planning a communitywide tuberculosis screening event tentatively slated for next fall.
The minister and top health officer heard presentations from one resident who fell ill with TB in the current outbreak and two Pangnirtung elders who survived tuberculosis as children at a time when the federal government regularly sent Inuit to TB sanitoria in southern Canada, Mr. Wilcke added.
“It keeps the trauma, the PTSD, of several generations alive,” Mr. Wilcke said of the current TB outbreak. “The very fact that we don’t see a significant improvement is actually getting people to the point where they see no hope of their trauma being addressed.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in 2019 for Ottawa’s management of the tuberculosis epidemic in the Arctic in the mid-20th century, calling the federal government’s practices “colonial” and “misguided.”