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Ottawa, Inuit develop task force to tackle sky-high tuberculosis rates

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor look on as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed addresses the media outside the House of Commons in Ottawa, on Oct. 5, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government unveiled Thursday a plan aimed at eliminating the sky high rate of tuberculosis among Canada's Inuit population.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced creation of a joint federal-Inuit task force to tackle the fact that the rate of TB among Inuit people is 270 times higher than the Canadian-born, non-Indigenous population.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the federal government has never pledged — until now— a joint plan aimed at eliminating the disease.

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"We've often said 'When is a crisis a crisis?"' Obed said. "For Inuit, this is a monumental step forward."

The task force will help ensure Inuit organizations and governments are on the same page with service delivery efforts in Inuit Nunangat — the Inuit homeland, he said.

Task force aims to eliminate tuberculosis among Inuit (The Canadian Press)

Tuberculosis has been present among Inuit for more than a century, said Philpott, adding that political will, tremendous organization and resources will be required to tackle it.

"We know that there are teenagers, children and families affected all the time in Canada's Inuit Nunangat region," Philpott said.

The federal government says tuberculosis among Inuit in 2015 was more than 270 times higher than the rate in the non-Indigenous, Canadian-born population and Nunavut has the highest rate at 119.2 cases per 100,000 population.

Philpott also spoke Thursday of the case of Ileen Kooneeliusie, a 15-year-old Inuk girl who died in an Ottawa hospital with tuberculosis.

"We hear of the stories of an individual, it often makes those statistics become real," she said.

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"When you hear the stories of a 15-year girl who died in this city in 2017 from tuberculosis, it awakens you to the very serious injustices that still exist."

Kooneeliusie's death clearly speaks to many of the challenges faced by Canada's Inuit who often have to overcome barriers, including geography, to access care, Philpott added.

"People have to overcome language barriers. There are severe shortages of nurses and other health professionals in the areas that are worst affected," she said.

"Now is the time to develop a very aggressive strategy to eliminate tuberculosis in Inuit."

Ottawa has also vowed to take steps to address the painful history of Inuit who experienced relocations and mistreatment during the tuberculosis epidemic of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

"This is an essential part of the overarching work that we will be doing on tuberculosis elimination and it is also a central part in the reconciliation framework that must exist between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government," Philpott said.

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