People of Nain want answers after 14-year-old dies of tuberculosis

Why did a 14-year-old boy die of tuberculosis in Nain, just two years after a 39-year old man died of TB in the same Labrador Inuit community.

Health department tracking down individuals who may have been exposed to disease

Nain residents will be tested to make sure they have not been exposed to TB, following the death of a teen from the Labrador community. (CBC)

Health authorities are still struggling to figure out how a 14-year-old boy ended up dying of tuberculosis in Nain, just two years after a similar outbreak left a 39-year old man dead in the Labrador Inuit community.

Delphine Grynszpan, a provincial medical officer of health, said Friday that health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador are mobilizing to ensure that no other person in Nain succumbs to tuberculosis following teenager Gussie Bennett's death.

The provincial health department confirmed earlier this week that the cause of Bennett's death was likely tuberculosis.

14-year-old Gussie Bennett's death has sent ripples through his Nain community. (Submitted by Katie Suarak)

Grynszpan told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning that health workers are tracking down people who may have been exposed to Bennett, starting with family and anyone else who had prolonged contact.

"We are contacting those people and will be offering screening, and where necessary — both as a precaution and if anyone presents with symptoms — we'll be offering treatment very rapidly," said Grynszpan.

She stressed Friday that tuberculosis is transmitted only between people who have repeated contact with a carrier.

"Tuberculosis is harder to catch than the common cold. It's not something you can catch from just being in the same room as someone for a few minutes or an hour or two. It requires more prolonged contact."

Symptoms of tuberculosis include persistent cough, chest pain, fever, fatigue and loss of appetite.

If caught early enough, tuberculosis can be treatable and cured.

2015 testing didn't prevent new case

After the tuberculosis outbreak in 2014 and 2015 in Nain, which saw 14 people diagnosed with the illness and one death, measures were put in place to ensure people in the community got tested and treated before it was too late.

Bennett presented to the clinic in Nain with tuberculosis-related symptoms last Friday, and died on Sunday in St. John's.

"It is a shock and it's really one of the things that we are concerned about," said Grynszpan.

"One of the difficult things when we're dealing with a disease like TB, is that it can remain dormant to what we call latent in a person and essentially also within a community."

Delphine Grynszpan says that health care workers will be tracking down people who may be susceptible tuberculosis for testing. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Grynszpan said it's possible that the tuberculosis came from someone who wasn't tested in the community at that time, who caught it in another area.

"There is always the possibility that someone is fine, is not showing any systems, not showing any signs and it may come back again," she said. 

If Nain residents are concerned that they or a loved one may have signs of tuberculosis, Grynszpan said they should report immediately to the Nain clinic.

Nunatsiavut president responds

Nunatsiavut government president Johannes Lampe said the mood in town is sombre as the community attempts to come to terms with Bennett's death. 

He said many people have unanswered questions and fears about the tuberculosis diagnosis.

"Right now we are doing everything we can to try to fix the situation," said Lampe.

Nunatsiavut president Johannes Lampe, seen here in a 2016 file photo, says the health of Labrador Inuit must be taken seriously. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"We are being re-educated and again being warned about TB, that we have to continue to keep doing the evaluations and most certainly, where family is involved, we need to make sure that the whole 10 yards is taken to make sure the elimination of TB is taken care of."

Lampe said that people really need to seek help if they think something might be wrong and visit the Nain health clinic.

He also would like to see more modern technology at the Nain clinic and more Labrador Inuit trained to operate X-ray machines in their community

"We need to build a relationship on issues that are health related and to make sure that the limitations or barriers are worked out," he said.

Indigenous services minister monitoring

Lampe said he spoke with federal Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott and she is monitoring the situation.

"She is a good minister to work with and she being a doctor herself fully understands what is going on and has assured us that she will do everything to make sure her department supports Nain," he said.

Philpott's comments come as the federal government makes a pledge to eliminate tuberculosis across Inuit communites by 2030.

"This should absolutely not happen. It's an entirely preventable and treatable condition, but the stories of young people dying of tuberculosis in Canada in the 21st century is part of what drives us to the commitment we're working today," she said.

With files from Labrador Morning and Zach Goudie