Province issues plea for nurses to work in flu-stricken north

Manitoba's health minister has issued a public plea to doctors and nurses to help northern communities hit hard by swine flu.

Manitoba's health minister has issued a public plea to doctors and nurses to help northern communities hit hard by swine flu.

Theresa Oswald held a special summit with medical leaders from across the province Thursday to address a shortage of medical personnel in the remote regions where First Nations people have been hit hard by the H1N1 virus.

On Friday, Oswald and the province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Joel Kettner, flew to St. Theresa Point First Nation to meet with aboriginal leaders from the region and get a clear idea of what is needed.

Kettner said on Thursday that the flu outbreak highlights the long-standing problem of recruiting nurses in the north.

"It's a very serious problem. It's a problem that, particularly in a situation like this, needs an urgent solution," he said. "Hopefully we'll find ways that will not only meet the immediate needs but will be a way of sustaining adequate primary care on an ongoing basis."

Dispute over medical supplies

Aboriginal leaders have been calling on the federal and provincial governments to boost health-care services on reserves. But there has also been some dispute as to the availability of other medical materials.

The provincial government has been saying this week that it has distributed surgical masks, respirators and anti-virals to meet the needs of those remote residents.

But David Harper, chief of the Garden Hill First Nation, which is near St. Theresa Point, has said his community requested the equipment from the province a month ago and nothing has been delivered.

Two cases of swine flu have also been confirmed in Garden Hill while St. Theresa Point has nine. The two communities are about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Oswald on Thursday put out a request for volunteer nurses to head north.

"We held a special summit to speak to all of the medical leadership across the province in a call for help," she said. "If every health professional in Manitoba did even one shift in a remote northern community, we would be able to solve this problem virtually overnight."

Thirty-eight people have been airlifted out of Garden Hill in the last month, including 18-month-old Peter Flett, who became the community's first confirmed case of swine flu. The reserve of 4,000 residents only has three full-time nurses and shares one doctor with another community.

Ill-prepared to deal with outbreak

Harper said the community was poorly prepared for the outbreak.

"[Manitoba Health officials] gave us a binder…and said, 'This is what you have to have done.' We pretty much had no resources to get these plans in place," he said this week.

In St. Theresa Point, 200 people have fallen ill in the past two weeks. Most were being treated for mild conditions in the community, but 27 have been sent to hospital in Winnipeg with severe symptoms.

Despite the desperate need for medical help, even Harper was reluctant to say whether he would want to work as a nurse in Garden Hill. The nursing station's equipment is old or broken and nurses don't have the support of a full medical team as they would have in an urban clinic, he said.

"We are struggling to get some service up here," Harper said.

Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a Manitoban born on the Sagkeeng First Nation, said Thursday that: "There's absolutely no reason why we can't build a hospital in one of those communities so that people can expect to have access to good health care.

"We're talking about a crisis, and we need to deal with that," Fontaine told reporters in an interview in Ottawa.

With files from The Canadian Press