April 3, 2002
"We have high rates, but they've been higher and they're coming down," said Dr. Vernon Hoeppner, director of TB control for Saskatchewan Health. In Saskatchewan, he said, 64 aboriginals out of 100,000 carried the disease in 2000, with about 50 per 100,000 people in 2001. Rates have diminished by half since 1991, he said. Compared with the rest of Canada, reported cases of TB are significantly higher in the Prairie provinces, the Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.
"Prior to 1880, death from tuberculosis in Saskatchewan was uncommon," said Hoeppner. Unlike the East Coast, where Europeans landed by ship and exposed local aboriginal populations to TB some 300 years ago, the aboriginal people of the Prairies were exposed about 100 or 120 years ago when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built and the reserve system was established. TB as an epidemic runs a course anywhere from 200 to 500 years, said Hoeppner, which explains why TB rates are higher in the Prairies and the North compared with the rest of Canada. The epidemic is still running its cycle.
Hoeppner and his colleagues face a daunting challenge to pre-empt any cases of the disease in the province, which tend to crop up mostly in northern communities. "We do on-site screening quite frequently," he said. "Because of this early intervention and surveillance, most people we find are not sick, they aren't transmitting it, and we treat them before a public health problem is created." Hoeppner's team also relies on vaccinating aboriginal children as a way to prevent any outbreaks.