Inuit and the past tuberculosis epidemic

Tuberculosis is preventable and curable now thanks to advances in medicine, but it was not always so.

The contagious and potentially deadly lung disease reached epidemic proportions in Canada in the early 20th century and peaked among Inuit between the 1940s to the 1960s.

High incidence

The epidemic was not confined to Inuit, but Inuit were greatly affected due to the high incidence of tuberculosis, and the lengthy separation of patients from their families, and  not receiving information on the fate of their loved one.

During the 1950s, at least one-third of the Inuit population was infected with tuberculosis.

Due in part to a lack of medical facilities in the north at the time, many Inuit were sent away from their home communities to medical facilities across Canada to receive treatment, under the administration of the federal government.

Long stays, limited treatments

Patients stayed in hospitals and sanatoria for an average of two-and-a-half years, but some stayed much longer.

Lengthy patient stays were the result of limited treatment options. Before the invention of antibiotics in the late 1950s, doctors had to rely on the "rest cure." This involved surgery to collapse a lung to allow it to heal. Travelling by boat was also the most common means of transportation for Inuit, so the duration stay was also impacted by the limited window of opportunity to travel back home during the thaw period in summer months.

Management of records

Geographic remoteness, different modes of transportation to treatment facilities, limited communication methods, and language barriers often combined to make the management of information about Inuit patients inconsistent and lacking rigour.

Many Inuit patients were treated and returned home, however, many others died and were laid to rest near treatment facilities. To this day, many Inuit are still searching for information, including the whereabouts of their family member's grave. Others do not know the complete history of what happened to their family members during treatment.

Federal responsibility for Inuit health was not confined to a single department. Because of this decentralized approach, information about a patient's health status, if they had died and details of their burial were not always communicated back to their family.

Ongoing trauma and repercussions

The difficulty Inuit had in learning the whereabouts and status of their family members has led to a mistrust of medical treatment and the health care system that has had intergenerational impacts, affecting the overall health in Inuit communities today. The trauma of the past tuberculosis era remains with many Inuit, who have vivid memories of going away for treatment or of a loved one being taken for x-rays and never coming back.

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