It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Deborah Decontie.
As a nurse in the reserve community of Kitigan Zibi First Nation, two hours north of Ottawa, Decontie is on the front lines of a mass H1N1 vaccination effort. Since the vaccine first arrived in the community on Oct. 26, she estimates that close to 400 of the reserve’s 1500 residents have been inoculated.
“We feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of doing our homework and making sure we’re really prepared for this pandemic,” Decontie said. “We’ve been really focusing on getting the message out about vaccines and making sure people can make informed decisions.”
But Canada’s national aboriginal chief said the H1N1 virus won’t be the last health crisis First Nations communities will face.
“After H1N1 is gone, there will be ongoing health crises for First Nations communities,” Association of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo said Tuesday.
“We need to take advantage of the opportunities. We have to learn from these experiences.”
Atleo made the remarks in a webcast summit on H1N1 and aboriginal communities. The summit aimed to respond to ongoing questions about access to the vaccine and the ability of remote communities to respond to the pandemic.
Gina Wilson, deputy minister at Indian and Northern Affairs, said Canada has a responsibility to deal with the underlying challenges facing First Nations communities.
“What we’re talking about here is quality of life issues,” Wilson said. “Addressing these will go a long way to addressing health concerns like H1N1.”
Wilson said Canada is already taking steps to improve living conditions on Canadian reserves.
Atleo said some of the most serious concerns include overcrowding in houses, a lack of clean drinking water and poor access to medical services — particularly for remote and isolated communities.
“The biggest disadvantage really relates to the high rates of chronic disease and injuries for First Nations communities,” said David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. “Some factors are in our control and others are not, but it’s important that we address all of the issues we can.”
For now, Kitigan Zibi has run out of most of the vaccine, and Decontie said nurses are concentrating on getting the remaining doses to the community’s most at-risk groups until more arrives.