Fungal infection outbreak in northeastern Ontario leading to deaths in a First Nation community
By: Dalainey Gervais
In late-November of this year, two deaths in the Lake Constance First Nation community were liked to blastomycosis, a rare fungal infection afflicting the lungs caused by breathing in the spores of Blastomyces dermatitis or Blastomyces gilchristii. The fungal infection is not transmissible from person-to-person, and is typically acquired airborne through contaminated soil. As of early December, a total of 9 residents of Constance Lake First Nation community have been diagnosed with Blastomycosis with an additional 24 cases under investigation leading the community to declare a state of emergency.
With limited access to medical resources and prevention methods in Indigenous communities in Canada, declaring a state of emergency allows these communities to receive aid from surrounding areas to take control of the outbreak before any more individuals contract the infection.
Mostly appearing in the moist wooded areas and surrounding waters of Ontario and Manitoba, Blastomyces dermatitis and Blastomyces gilchristii cause symptoms similar to pneumonia including bloody cough, fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Treatment of the infection typically involves anti-fungal medication taken over the course of 6 months.
Although a rare form of fungal infection, this is not the first case of a blastomycosis outbreak in this region of northeastern Ontario. In 2017, 15 individuals of the Sheshegwaning First Nation on Manitoulin were send to the hospital in a similar outbreak. The previous outbreak was linked to a common source of contaminated soil and affected primarily Indigenous children of the area.
The outbreak at hand and previous outbreaks in Indigenous communities have led to questions of a possible correlation between blastomycosis and the location of Indigenous communities and reserves in Northeastern Ontario. As of now, it is suspected that there is a single area of exposure that exposed all sick individuals of this outbreak, which is similar to what happened in the previous outbreak. While health officials are aware of the heightened risks of airborne fungal infections like blastomycosis in these communities, there have been no steps taken towards preventative medicine or education to help diminish the risks of contagion.
While the recent outbreak is devastating to the community, it reminds Canadians of the dire need to increase health care support in Indigenous communities across Canada. Boil water advisories are still present across First Nation communities, furthering the risk of potential illness outbreaks. In addition, lack of access to medical clinics and mental health support continue to perpetuate health-related crises within these communities and carry on the generations of mistreatments inflicted on Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian government. For instance, those afflicted with blastomycosis in the Lake Constance First Nation community who suffered severe symptoms of the illness were taken out of their community and airlifted to hospitals in Sudbury, nearly 600 km away. Instances like these are wake up calls to government officials to prioritize Indigenous communities in health care access.