Thunder Bay

Flesh-eating disease in homeless signals broader problem, shelter head says

The head of Shelter House says she's not surprised by the high rate of necrotizing fasciitis among Thunder Bay's homeless population.
Thunder Bay Shelter House director Patty Hajdu says she thinks the homeless situation is Thunder Bay is getting worse.

The head of Shelter House says she's not surprised by the rate of flesh-eating disease among Thunder Bay's homeless population.

CBC News recently reported that the rate of necrotizing fasciitis is six times higher in northwestern Ontario than the rest of the province.

Patty Hajdu said people who are homeless don't usually get the nutrition they need to ward off illness — and they are less likely to get the care they need if they cut themselves. 

Patty Hajdu, the executive director of Shelter House, says society simply doesn't invest enough in preventing the root causes of disease — like making sure people have somewhere to live and have nutritious food to eat. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

"There's of course a higher risk ...they're going to become infected in a way that maybe the kid ... down the street who fell off his bike whose mom sprays it with Bactine and puts a Band-Aid on [it] won't," she said.

"This disease is a representation of a growing issue in our community," Hajdu added, noting that she believes homelessness is on the rise in Thunder Bay. 

Necrotizingfasciitis usually stems from a common bacterium, Group A strep. Most healthy people can fight off infection before it would get to the point of invading and killing tissue.

Hajdu said necrotizing fasciitis is one of many illnesses that disproportionately afflict the homeless.

"It's frustrating to me … as someone who works in this population ... to see the level of suffering — the unnecessary suffering — that goes on and on and on.”

Society simply doesn't invest enough in preventing the root causes of disease, like making sure people have somewhere to live and nutritious food to eat, she said.

"When you don't have the necessities of life around you, your immune system is much lower. Without housing, people are not able to pursue other behaviours or other activities that might be able to improve their health.”

It's hard for people to take care of their health when they're distraught about their living situation and "worrying about where you're going to sleep that night,” she continued.

Funding is ‘broken’

Hajdu said governments need to change the way they fund health care to include basic prevention strategies, like affordable housing.

“I think that the way we fund things is broken,” she said, noting that plenty of money is provided to health care, but there's no clear direction on what government portfolio is responsible for funding strategies that would improve lives and address issues faced by the homeless.

Pilot research has been done that shows helping the homeless would alleviate the load on the health-care system, Hajdu added.

CBC News asked the Ontario Ministry of Health how much it costs to treat necrotizing fasciitis in hospital.

The Ministry reported 112 inpatient cases were treated in the province in 2012/2013, and the average cost of care, per patient, was $47,703. 

All levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal — have a responsibility to help, Hajdu said. At a municipal level, she said, that could mean greater encouragement for companies to construct more affordable housing. 

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