Tuberculosis is an old foe now returning
- | April 29, 2022
Tuberculosis (TB) is among the most persistent of diseases experienced by Indigenous people. It’s an old sickness once thought to be a disease of the past, but has since returned.
The rate of TB cases on Indigenous First Nations in Canada is over forty times higher than the non-Indigenous population. In 2021 Saskatchewan fully forty two percent of cases occurred on First Nations. One in three cases were children.
TB is spread through the air entering the lungs. Only a few will develop the disease, but those who do experience fatigue, chest pain and persistent coughing leading to coughing blood. The disease then moves into the body attacking bones and internal organs. Effective medications were only developed during the nineteen forties.
The consumption, as it was once known, took many First Nation lives. Virtually every family lost a relative or more to the disease. The Influenza epidemic of 1918 also killed many. The death toll was so fast and so extensive mass graves were hurriedly dug on every reserve. Little is known nor recalled from that troubled time.
TB is preventable and can be treated. It is no longer the epidemic it once was but it is still impacting First Nations communities. The most recent outbreak occurred in the north at Black Lake, Fond-du-Lac and Pelican Narrows.
First Nations are especially vulnerable due to overcrowded housing, sanitary conditions and access to health care due in part to the continuing impact of colonization. Although the infection rate is small, weakened immune systems increase the odds of infection.
The very high rates of diabetes among First Nations people definitely lowers immunity as does COVID. Children are especially vulnerable.
In the recent past, active cases received treatment at sanitoriums. For many it was a temporary stay for others it was long term. They were strict and regimented places. There were three in Saskatchewan. These were at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. They featured large balconies where bed ridden patients were brought. Treatment at this time included fresh air but, in some cases, patients were confined to body casts and straitjackets.
They had no say in treatment and weren’t allowed visits. There are horrendous but credible accounts of children being subjected to medical experimentation. This is almost unbelievable and cruel. Whenever First Nations people were powerless the worst oppression was free to happen and did. This includes the abuse of children in residential schools. Despite a fearsome experience for some, healing did happen for the many while others died from the disease.
The sanitoriums are now closed and replaced by modern medicine and improved health care.
First Nations now receive accessible quality health care. Much can be written about the former segregated substandard underfunded Indian Affairs health care system provided to First Nations. It leaves a bitter taste.