People in the community of Onion Lake are feeling uneasy after two cases of a rare infection were found in the area, but health officials say there’s little to no risk of the infection spreading further.
Last week, Indigenous Services Canada wrote to band leaders of the Onion Lake Cree Nation near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border indicating that two cases of diphtheria had been diagnosed — one on the reserve itself and the other in a nearby community.
For one mother, the diagnoses have been troubling.
“I am terrified,” said Roxanne Littlewolfe, a mother of six and educational assistant in Onion Lake.
She said she’s been hearing a lot of the same from other people in the community, especially mothers who have just had children.
Littlewolfe said many people have questions and she doesn’t think enough information about the infection is circulating in the community.
“There’s not enough information for us to go on it,” she said. “It’s just going ear-to-ear and mouth-to-mouth.”
The Onion Lake Health Centre has posted some information about the illness on it’s Facebook page, but Littlewolfe said she’d like to see a community-education event organized because some in the area aren’t connected to the Internet or social media.
“If they had somebody come in to actually speak about the ‘do’s and the don’ts’ and the ‘what ifs’ I think our community would have a better understanding.”
According to the Centre for Disease Control in the U.S., diphtheria is an infection caused by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria. The infection occurs in the respiratory system or on skin. With treatment, 1 in 10 diphtheria patients die and that number jumps up to 5 in 10 if left untreated.
Officials say the Onion Lake diphtheria cases were not linked to one another.
Albert Jimmy, the health director of the Onion Lake Health Board Inc. said band leadership is working to distribute information about the infections. Fact sheets have been distributed to schools, teachers, healthcare professionals and in the community at large.
Jimmy said he had plans to go on local radio Wednesday to relay information about the infection, but the broadcast was delayed. Instead, the broadcast will take place Thursday. He said leadership is working with Indigenous Services Canada to make sure information is flowing.
“I understand people are scared, they were texting me and some parents weren’t going to be sending their children to school, so we have to reassure them,” he said.
Jimmy said medical staff in the area treated the infection quickly and were able to contain its spread.
“All we need to do is keep people informed more and we’re trying to do that,” he said.
When asked about the idea of hosting a public event to inform members of the community about the infection he said “we’re open to all suggestions” and it’s something he’ll be approaching leadership about this week.
Dr. Ibrahim Khan, Regional Medical Health Officer with Indigenous Services Canada, said the community did an excellent job identifying and containing the infection. At this time, no additional resources have been requested.
“So far, I have offered all sorts of support to the community, but they say they are O.K. and if they need anything they will let us know,” said Khan.
He said he’s also had an opportunity to speak with the affected patients and their families directly and has been in frequent contact with health officials and nurses on the frontline in the community.
Khan said if the community decides to host an event to inform community members, representatives from Indigenous Services Canada will be present.
“I’ll be there. Our nurses will be there. Our team will be there,” he said.
In the letter sent to Onion Lake leaders last week, it explained that people may be at risk of infection because the vaccination rate for diphtheria in the Onion Lake area is below the desired target.
However, Dr. Johnmark Opondo, the medical health officer responsible for overseeing communicable diseases within the Saskatchewan Health Authority said the provincial vaccination rate for the province is solid.
“My understanding is even on First Nations communities their coverage for this vaccine is very high … more than 90 percent of the population have been immunized with vaccine that protects against diphtheria,” he said.
He said there hasn’t been a case of diphtheria in the province for “many years” and stressed that professionals in Onion Lake took the correct steps to contain the infection.
Anyone with concerns about their own or their child’s immunization record should get in touch with their local health officials to ensure all vaccines are up to date.