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More Bad Water: Bad News


Bad water in First Nations leads to high rate of invasive infection, doctor says

Three and a half year-old Hailey Sakanee takes a sip of water. Her community, Neskantaga First Nation, has been under a water advisory for two decades.  Three and a half year-old Hailey Sakanee takes a sip of water. Her community, Neskantaga First Nation, has been under a water advisory for two decades.

‘Poverty kills,’ says Dr. Mike Kirlew, who studied invasive MRSA infections north of Sioux Lookout

Bad water and inadequate housing is leading to a “dramatic increase in invasive disease” in First Nations north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., according to research published in the Canadian Journal of Rural Medicine.

Northwestern Ontario, home to 10 remote First Nations that haven’t had safe tap water in more than a decade, is seeing one of the highest rates of community-associated MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in Canada, the study said.

The infection which typically causes boils or abscesses is taking a more invasive form in the remote First Nations that were studied, leading to 23 cases of sepsis and pneumonia during a two-year period. The rate of infection is approximately 20 times higher than the city of Calgary, which was subject to a similar study. 


The Chief of Neskantaga First Nation says the majority of children on his reserve have sores like these on their bodies. Chief Wayne Moonias says with limited access to doctors and nurses it is impossible to know if the sores are caused by contaminated water or other third world living conditions in the community. (submitted to CBC News)

“Poverty kills,” said Dr. Mike Kirlew, a doctor who works in Sioux Lookout and serves remote First Nations in northern Ontario.

“This is a bug that takes advantage of the overcrowded housing, the lack of clean water and the inferior health care delivery,” Kirlew said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

People who live in close conditions without safe running water for cleaning are more likely to have bacteria on their skin that becomes an invasive infection, he said.

Once the infection breaks the skin and gets into the blood it can affect the lungs, liver, heart and bones.

Community associated MRSA is different than the so-called hospital super bug.

“I would call it a bug with a resistance pattern that makes it difficult to treat,” Kirlew said.

Even drastic intervention with antibiotics wouldn’t make as much difference in the infection rate as “giving the community safe running water,” he said.

Kirlew also worked on recently published research showing the rate of rheumatic fever in the same remote First Nations is 75 times higher than the rest of Canada.

“These are medical conditions that have socio-economic causes,” he said.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the political treaty organization that represents the First Nations in the study, said on Monday the research shows there is a health crisis in the communities that requires immediate solutions.

“Such high rates of infectious diseases are a shocking indictment of a broken health care system,” said Deputy Grand Chief Terry Waboose. “The normalization of second-class citizenship by First Nations living on-reserve is unacceptable and must be a call for action.”