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'A lot of anxiety': First Nation grapples with possible blastomycosis outbreak

A wave of anxiety has washed over a First Nation in northern Ontario that's looking to trace the source of a fungus suspected of causing lung infections in dozens of residents, the community's chief said Wednesday.

Constance Lake First Nation declared a state of emergency earlier this week and Chief Ramona Sutherland said 13 residents now have probable cases of blastomycosis.

Another 37 people are under investigation for it, meaning they haven't been confirmed to have the infection, but are asked to get checked out at the hospital two days after their initial checkup, she said. 

Patients have been airlifted to hospitals outside of the community, with eight currently receiving care in different cities. 

There has been a work-from-home order since Saturday and schools as well as the band administration office have been closed. 

Sutherland said three recent deaths in the community may be linked to blastomycosis, but that has yet to be confirmed.

"It's caused a lot of anxiety," she said in an interview. 

"We're really hoping that the source will be found, contained and addressed somehow." 

Blastomycosis is typically caused by a fungus that grows in moist soil, leaves and rotting wood, and is spread when a person breathes in small particles of the fungus into their lungs. 

Symptoms range from a mild cough to serious breathing problems. Some people may not show any symptoms, while others may develop a long-term form of pneumonia.

Currently, there are 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.

Sutherland said there are three government investigators helping to detect the source of the potential outbreak in the community, with two more on the way, but she is looking at securing more support from the provincial and federal governments.  

"Given the urgency and the gravity of the situation, I think we'll be requesting more investigators so that the results can come back, because the normal return for results is about three to five days, so I'd like to get the results as soon as possible," she added. 

A questionnaire is also being distributed to residents in the community to help pinpoint the source of the potential blastomycosis outbreak. 

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 said 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.

Ontario's Ministry of Health has said the province is working to help the community and is supporting patient transfers from the hospital in Hearst. It also said an environmental health investigation is underway, with samples being sent to a Public Health Ontario lab in Toronto.

Sutherland is encouraging residents to get their flu shots and go get checked out at the hospital if they have any symptoms, including a cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, fever or chills. 

The chief also noted that flyers will be delivered to residents to ensure the community has the latest information on the potential blastomycosis outbreak.

"Don't lose hope. We're working really hard. I pray that we will overcome this as soon, as soon, as soon as possible," Sutherland said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021. 


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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