Another tuberculosis outbreak has been declared in Nunavut, this time in a community near the top of Baffin Island.
Nunavut’s Department of Health announced Friday that five active and 22 latent cases of TB have been identified in Pond Inlet, a hamlet of 1,500 people, since last month.
The territorial government had two weeks ago confirmed that a TB outbreak continues to affect Pangnirtung. More than 200 cases, 39 of them active, have been diagnosed there since January, 2021.
TB is caused by airborne bacteria that most often lodge in the lungs, causing fevers, night sweats, weight loss, deep fatigue and a relentless, sometimes bloody, cough. Active cases make patients sick and infectious. Latent infections are asymptomatic and not contagious, but they put people at risk of developing active TB disease in the future.
TB is rare in most of Canada. But that is not the case in Inuit communities, where in some recent years, TB rates have been as much as 300 times higher than those of non-Indigenous people born in Canada. That disparity prompted the federal Liberal government to promise in 2018 to eliminate TB in Inuit lands by 2030 – a goal that has prompted renewed attention by news of another outbreak in Nunavut.
Sean Wachtel, Nunavut’s Chief Public Health Officer, travelled to Pond Inlet to share news of the outbreak with the community directly. He addressed a meeting of the hamlet council on Thursday night. On Friday, he visited Pond Inlet’s health centre and spoke about the outbreak on a local radio show.
“People have a lot of questions,” Dr. Wachtel said. “And that’s really why we came up in person to speak to the council and the community, and to engage people at the local level to try to reassure them as much as possible.”
Friday’s outbreak declaration in Pond Inlet marked a departure from the way TB news was handled in Pangnirtung. In the latter case, an outbreak wasn’t publicly declared until November, 2021, nearly a year after the first case was identified.
Even then, the Department of Health initially refused to divulge a case tally. A Globe and Mail investigation later found that front-line nurses in Pangnirtung were desperate for help in the summer of 2021 as the disease spread and as senior health officials dragged their feet on declaring an outbreak.
The Nunavut government finally revealed the Pangnirtung case numbers last May. It has since updated the tally every three months. Last November, the government and the territory’s top Inuit organization, Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., signed a TB information sharing agreement that included a commitment to greater transparency.
Dr. Wachtel said tackling TB in Nunavut will require “addressing the social determinants of health,” such as overcrowded housing, food insecurity, poverty and high rates of smoking and chronic disease.
“It’s not just a medical treatment and a quick cure,” he added. “The ultimate solution to TB is a political one.”