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5 people have died from TB in Nunavut in the past 2 years

The health centre in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, in August 2023. Nunavut's chief public health officer says 5 people in the territory have died from tuberculosis in the past 2 years. He wouldn't say where, but Pangirtung, Naujaat and Pond Inlet are all battling outbreaks. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The health centre in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, in August 2023. Nunavut's chief public health officer says 5 people in the territory have died from tuberculosis in the past 2 years. He wouldn't say where, but Pangirtung, Naujaat and Pond Inlet are all battling outbreaks. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Five people in Nunavut have died from tuberculosis over the past two years, according to the territory's chief medical officer of health.

Dr. Sean Wachtel said the deaths were "attributable" to the disease, but wouldn't provide more details about where they happened. In an interview with CBC News, he said each person's death was, in theory, preventable.

This comes as the territory's Health Department and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated mark a successful tuberculosis screening operation in Pangnirtung, which has been battling an outbreak of the disease for a little more than two years now.

It's one of three Nunavut communities where outbreaks have been declared. The Department of Health declared an outbreak in Pond Inlet last March, and in Naujaat last May.

Wachtel said the screening campaign in Pangnirtung was done in close collaboration with the hamlet council, and it had the capacity to test up to 1,200 of Pangnirtung's roughly 1,600 residents. He said he was "pleased" that 1,132 people were screened in all, meaning the operation reached 94 per cent of its target.

Six active cases of the disease were discovered, said Wachtel, as well as 55 latent cases which are also sometimes called "sleeping" cases. The difference between active and latent tuberculosis is that active tuberculosis is contagious, and latent tuberculosis isn't — but latent TB needs to be treated so that it doesn't become active.

Wachtel said people with latent tuberculosis are recommended for treatment to clear the disease from the body.

How screening was done

The screening clinic opened at Pangnirtung's community hall in September. Earlier this week, the Department of Health and the Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated announced the 10-week program was a success.

Wachtel said support from Pangnirtung's leadership was an "essential piece" of the operation.

He said there was "extensive" community engagement, which included getting the word out through media, posters and community health representatives. Gift cards were also offered as an incentive, he said.

Although there has been discussion about holding similar campaigns in other communities, Wachtel said there are no other events planned at this point. Depending on the pattern of the disease in a community, it might not always be effective, he said.

Outbreak ongoing

In a media release on Friday, Nunavut's Department of Health said Pangirtung's tuberculosis outbreak is ongoing. Forty-six people have been diagnosed with active cases since January 2021, and 254 have been diagnosed with latent tuberculosis, it said.

People are urged to go to the health centre for screening if they have a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, feel very tired, have lost their appetite, or are experiencing a fever or night sweats.

Wachtel said tuberculosis is a curable disease, but it can do lasting damage. Throughout his career, he's seen people die from tuberculosis that infected the lungs, the heart, and the bowel.

"The way that people die is usually their heart stops because the can't breathe enough, but exactly what leads to that depends on where the TB is in the body," he said.