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First Nation says one person confirmed to have blastomycosis, more services needed

A First Nation in northern Ontario said Thursday that it requires additional services as it grapples with a suspected outbreak of lung infections in dozens of residents, including three deaths.

A First Nation in northern Ontario said Thursday that it requires additional services as it grapples with a suspected outbreak of lung infections in dozens of residents, including three deaths. 

Constance Lake First Nation, a community of over 900 residents, declared a state of emergency Monday after probable cases of blastomycosis and three recent deaths came to light. 

In a news release, the First Nation said it has reported 44 cases — including eight in children — under investigation for the lung infection, which is typically caused by a fungus that grows in moist soil, leaves and rotting wood. Symptoms range from a mild cough to serious breathing problems. 

It said 16 of these cases required members to be hospitalized. 

In a virtual update Wednesday evening, Constance Lake First Nation Chief Ramona Sutherland said one person has been confirmed to have a case of blastomycosis and has been transferred out to a hospital in a different community. She said another 13 people have probable cases of the infection. 

As the community deals with what Sutherland called a "tremendous loss and community crisis," she said additional services are required.

""We require services such as emergency housing inspections, additional site assessments, grief/mental health counselling, support for family members of sick individuals, and resources to help elevate fears of our people, to name a few. Due to our low standard of living, we need these resources IMMEDIATELY," she wrote in the news release. 

"We need to work closely and hold Federal and Provincial Governments accountable during this time of crisis and we ask our neighbouring communities and partners to help support us in our time of need.”

Indigenous Services Canada has said it's working directly with Sutherland, the Porcupine Public Health Unit, the Ontario government, the Matawa Chiefs Council and other partners to "identify and address community needs." 

The federal department also noted that a representative from ISC arrived in the community Tuesday to provide on-the-ground support, and additional nursing, mental health and crisis support may be provided.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, called the outbreak in the community "quite disconcerting" and said it may be a result of climate change. 

"This is a very rare infection. To have the numbers of cases that have occurred in that community is quite startling," he said.

Moore said the province has brought in multiple resources to "bear and support the community, from the laboratory system, from the health-care system in the Hearst hospital, to enhancing the access to infectious disease experts, both pediatric and adult, and to ensure that the community is getting appropriate screening, testing, as well as access to treatment." 

He also noted that experts have been brought in to conduct an environmental health investigation to find out how the community may have been exposed to blastomycosis. 

"This is a rare fungus that is typically found in soil or on on decaying materials such as wood, and it may be a sign of further climate change to have a community that far north, starting to have blastomycosis," Moore added. 

"Typically blastomycosis needs certain temperatures, it typically stays around the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi Valley. And to have it this far north in a large outbreak is very disconcerting." 

Currently, there are at least 11 sites in and around the community where samples will be gathered to detect the source of the fungus suspected of causing infections, including the site of a recent fire, a lumber mill, two lakes, and a school on the reserve.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2021. 

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship. 

Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press

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