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Alcohol-based sanitizers for flu-hit First Nations delayed over substance abuse fears

Last Updated: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 | 9:41 PM CT

People in Nunavut are being urged to do what they can to curb the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus. People in Nunavut are being urged to do what they can to curb the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus. (CBC)

Health Canada delayed the delivery of alcohol-based hand sanitizers to some First Nations communities affected by swine flu because of concerns the alcohol content might be abused, the senior public health adviser to the Assembly of First Nations told a Senate committee Tuesday.

Dr. Kim Barker said the incident was only one example of the way that the measures used so far to contain the swine flu pandemic have been ill-suited to the social realities of some aboriginal communities that lack running water for hand washing.

"We heard that … people were spending days discussing the pros and cons of a non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer versus an alcohol-based one because of the concerns about addictions in communities," Barker said. "It was absolutely outrageous."

Chiefs were involved from the beginning in discussions on pandemic planning and measures such as the use of alcohol-based sanitizers, said Anne-Marie Robinson, assistant deputy minister of Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.

"We have had some rare experiences in our communities where we have had theft of hand sanitizers," Robinson said. "We do have communities where we have large proportions of people who suffer from addiction."

Chief David Harper from the Garden Hill First Nation, about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, said the concern was legitimate because his community is a dry reserve, meaning they don't allow alcohol there.

But Harper said that was still not a valid excuse for delaying sending supplies his people desperately needed, especially since he was able to find and buy the reserve's own supply of alcohol-free sanitizers.

"They know that there's hand sanitizer wipes that are available, which are alcohol based," said Harper. "What are you saying? We're going to start chewing on them? I don't think so."

Call in military

Canada's First Nations communities have been hit hard by the H1N1 influenza A virus, but there is no consistent approach to the outbreak across the country, Barker told the Senate committee on aboriginal peoples.

She called for an independent task force to study flu outbreaks in First Nations and report back with recommendations for a seamless approach across the country before the fall flu season.

The delay in delivering hand sanitizers "represented the type of paternalism that we have treated First Nations with for a very, very long time," said Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs of Manitoba.

If Health Canada and Indian Affairs cannot organize the basic supplies, such as hand sanitizers and antivirals, then the military should be called in to provide proper housing and clean water as they do in Afghanistan, said Liberal Senator Charlie Watt of Quebec.

"If they can do it for the other countries, why can't they do it here in Canada?" Watt asked.

Barker likened the conditions on some reserves to those in "Mexican slums." The current swine flu pandemic began in Mexico in March.

Conditions on reserves, such as poverty, overcrowding and lack of clean water, are ideal for the spread of the H1N1 influenza A virus and other infectious diseases like tuberculosis, Barker said.

So far, the approach to swine flu has not been consistent, she said.

In northwestern Ontario, the antiviral drug Tamiflu was flown in to treat anyone with symptoms, but other provinces did not take that step, citing concerns the practice could fuel viral resistance to the drug, CBC News has reported previously.

The senators want their concerns to be addressed now, committee chairman and Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain of British Columbia said, given predictions that a second, worse wave of flu cases could emerge this fall.

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