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Chief David Harper poses outside of a federal government building in Winnipeg on Sept. 16, 2009, after returning body bags that were delivered to his northern Manitba reserve.

David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press

Native leaders in northern Manitoba fear they may be in grip of a lethal influenza outbreak.

One person died last week on a northern reserve in which Influenza A was a factor, according to Joel Kettner, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer. Tests are being conducted on other cases, he said. The virus H1N1 is one of a number of influenza viruses within that strain.

"We are very interested and concerned about the situation, and are watching it very closely," Dr. Kettner said Thursday evening.

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David Harper, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents most northern Manitoba first nations, said there have been two recent deaths and a third person is very ill. He fears influenza may be a factor in all three cases, and in the illnesses of others.

Both victims were members of Garden Hill first nation, according to David McDougall, chief of nearby St. Theresa Point. "We heard about it and our community is now on alert for extreme cases of flu," he said, though he added so far the community had been spared.

The victims were in their 30s and 40s and were healthy before becoming infected with the disease, Mr. Harper said. But sanitation conditions on the northern reserves are far from optimal, and underlying health problems, in some cases exacerbated by alcohol and poor nutrition, can complicate diagnosis, Dr. Kettner said.

The first victim, a woman, died a week ago Thursday, Mr. Harper said. The second victim, a man, died Thursday. The third, a woman, is at a Winnipeg hospital, he said. Mr. Harper estimated about 20 of 4,200 people in the Garden Hill community were currently ill.

"We are very concerned," he said. "We need way more attention." Dr. Kettner said federal and provincial health officials are on the scene providing flu shots and monitoring cases.

During the last H1N1 season in 2009, young Manitoban aboriginals appeared to be particularly vulnerable to the disease. Two-thirds of all flu victims on respirators in the province were aboriginal. Their average age was just 35.

Conflicting research results have left confusion over the vulnerability of aboriginal Canadians to the H1N1 virus. One study earlier this year found that 60 per cent of Manitoba's severe H1N1 cases for 2009 affected first nations people. But a University of Manitoba study this month concluded that they were equally able to ward off the disease.

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With a report from Patrick White

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