Hand sanitizer outcry masks deeper problems

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Date: June 26, 2009
Publisher: CNW Group Ltd. - Toronto Star Newspapers
Document Type: Article
Length: 603 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Byline: Carol Goar

The hand sanitizer controversy drove Carolyn Bennett nuts.

As a physician, the Liberal MP was acutely aware of the importance of hand washing in controlling the H1N1 pandemic. But as Canada's former minister of public health, she knew a bottle of squirt-on germ killer was no substitute for safe drinking water, decent housing and proper garbage disposal.

This week, as Bennett's parliamentary colleagues squabbled over the advisability of distributing alcohol-based hand sanitizer to aboriginal communities, she flew to the three Manitoba reserves hardest hit by the flu outbreak.

She saw 10 to 15 people living in a single house. She toured a community where 80 per cent of the residents didn't have running water. She saw piles of rotting garbage and windows with plastic covers.

"These are breeding grounds for infection," she said. "It's not surprising people are getting sick."

Bennett understands why the chiefs of some First Nations don't want hand sanitizer - which is typically 60 per cent alcohol - on their reserves. They've fought extremely hard to curb substance abuse. They are determined to keep their communities "dry."

But it's absurd that this one tiny piece of the pandemic puzzle has become the focus of the debate, she fumes. It is allowing the government to duck the bigger issues.

The brouhaha erupted Tuesday when a Health Canada official testified at the Senate aboriginal affairs committee that the government did not ship alcohol-based hand sanitizer to aboriginal communities in the nascent stages of the outbreak. Some chiefs were asking for alcohol-free hand sanitizer, explained Anne-Marie Robinson, assistant deputy minister for the First Nations and Inuit branch of Health Canada. The government didn't have any. It was scrambling to procure a shipment. "That discussion was had with the best interest of our clients in mind."

Her revelation prompted a swift, angry outcry.

"It's outrageous, the ignorance and possibly some racism, expressed toward First Nation people," said Sydney Garrioch, one of Manitoba's grand chiefs. He called on the government to apologize to residents of the flu-stricken reserves.

"The whole community was put at risk because someone was worried that a handful of people might abuse the stuff," said David McDougall, chief of Theresa Point, one of the affected reserves.

"I think it's another example of the paternalistic attitude with which aboriginal people are treated," said (Liberal) Senator Sharon Carstairs.

For Bennett, the whole spectacle was demoralizing.

She agrees that Health Canada should have purchased alcohol-free hand sanitizer years ago as part of a pandemic preparedness strategy. But that is the last line of defence, she points out.

Why did so few alarm bells go off when the school on the Garden Hill reserve had to be closed in mid-May because half the kids were sick? Why did no one recognize the symptoms of H1N1 until the first child was medevacked to Winnipeg? What will happen if there is a second wave of flu in the fall, as some medical experts are predicting? And what is the government doing about the underlying conditions that make so many aboriginal people susceptible to any infection that comes along?

It is surely no coincidence that most of the 78 flu patients from the three reserves were found to have pre-existing chronic conditions that put them at elevated risk.

So far, there have been no deaths. But medical authorities in Winnipeg worry that they won't have enough ventilators.

"It makes me crazy," Bennett said. She would be the first to agree that sanitation is essential in fighting infection and illness. But it doesn't come in plastic bottles.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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