Home LATEST NEWS HEALTH An indigenous community affected by a rare fungal disease

An indigenous community affected by a rare fungal disease


Within a week, Constance Lake buried three of its residents, and subsequently lost another. For this small indigenous community of some 900 inhabitants, the loss is colossal.

I just attended my cousin’s funeral and another friend died last night, confides Ramona Sutherland, as she meets us in her office at the band council on Wednesday afternoon.

The boss of Constance Lake is visibly shaken, but tries to reassure her family. His community is grappling with an outbreak that has already left about 20 sick and at least four suspected deaths.

On November 22, Chief Sutherland declared a state of emergency and called for help from the province and the federal government after several cases of blastomycosis were detected in her community.

A woman in front of the seven grandfathers teachings.

Chef Ramona Sutherland has lost a cousin and a friend to blastomycosis.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Jimmy Chabot

This fungal disease attacks a person’s lungs after they inhale the spores of a fungus that is commonly found in nature – especially near moldy wood. Blastomycosis is rare and often difficult to diagnose.

Many of our patients were first treated for pneumonia before doctors realized it was probably blastomycosis., explains Ramona Sutherland.

Since November, the chef adds that around a hundred people from her community have been screened for the disease.

There is a lot of angst in the community.

A quote from Ramona Sutherland, Head of Constance Lake

Since Constance Lake has been in a state of emergency, life has slowed down. The streets are almost deserted, construction sites have been halted, residents are working from home, and even the school is closed.

All this while waiting to find the source of the outbreak, which could be anywhere in the vast territory of the reserve. In a meeting this week, an expert told us it was like finding a needle in a haystack, laments Ramona Sutherland.

The chief has so far said she is satisfied with the help from other levels of government, who have sent teams to Constance Lake to take samples, in addition to providing mental health resources to the community.

Blastomycosis outbreak

The race for direct debits

Wayne Neegan was also deeply affected by the blastomycosis outbreak. The first person to die from it in Constance Lake was her childhood friend, Luke Moore, who was only 43 years old.

It’s very sad, I don’t know if I had time to get over it, confides the elected member of the band council. It has a big effect on me and I’m sure it does for a lot of people.

Wayne Neegan in front of snowy trees.

Wayne Neegan is on the Constance Lake Band Council.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Yasmine Mehdi

Despite the grief, Wayne Neegan remains determined to find the source of the outbreak. He takes us not far from Constance Lake cemetery, past a waterhole that residents of the community use in the summer for hunting and fishing. Two people dressed in white overalls and gas masks take samples there.

Patients are believed to have contracted blastomycosis during the fall or summer, when it was still hot.says Wayne Neegan, who recalls that the first symptoms of the disease do not appear for three weeks – or even several months in some cases.

Not far from there, in the community health center, Roger Wesley is also busy trying to find the source of the outbreak. The Constance Lake Health Crisis Unit Coordinator shows us a large map of his community, where places of interest are identified with yellow dots, red crosses or blue stickers.

This has never been seen before, to see so many members of the same community affected at the same time.

A quote from Wayne Neegan, Band Council Member

He explains that samples were taken in all kinds of places: on hiking trails, near piles of abandoned wood and even inside some residences.

Roger Wesley is standing next to a fridge.

Roger Wesley is the coordinator at Constance Lake. Before the blastomycosis outbreak, he was mainly managing the community’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Yasmine Mehdi

Three of the four people who died lived on the same street, underlines the one who knew the victims personally.

Find blastomycosis

The samples taken at Constance Lake travel some 1,000 kilometers to the Sporometrics lab in Toronto, where they are subjected to PCR tests to try to detect genes for blastomycosis.

In one week, the laboratory analyzed about sixty samples, but found no trace of the fungus.

I was surprised at the extent [de l’éclosion à Constance Lake] because there are a lot of people who have been affected in a very, very short period of time, which is not entirely common in my experience, says the expert – who adds that cases of blastomycosis have nevertheless already been reported in Ontario, near Lake Superior and in the vicinity of the town of Parry Sound.

James Scott seated in an office.

James Scott is a professor at the University of Toronto. He has been interested in blastomycosis for almost 30 years.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Yasmine Mehdi

Dr. Scott believes it will be difficult to pinpoint the source of the outbreak due to the area of ​​land to be combed through. The sample that can be analyzed is very small, so it is important to select it well. If we take a sample right next to the point of contamination, it may be missed., specifies the expert.

He said he was nonetheless encouraged by the fact that many people appear to have been infected within a short period of time, which he said indicates that the source of the outbreak is likely very localized.

A long convalescence

Finding the source of blastomycosis is not the only thing that will take time: treating your patients too. It was at the hospital in the small French-speaking town of Hearst that the first patients blasto have been diagnosed.

Dr. Marjolaine Talbot-Lemaire has dealt with some of them. Our emergency room visits have tripled, quadrupled, in the space of a week, illustrates the doctor.

Notre-Dame Hospital had to empty its operating rooms to be able to welcome patients from Constance Lake, in addition to transferring several to neighboring hospitals in Timmins, Sudbury, Sault-Sainte-Marie and even in CHEO Children’s Hospital in Ottawa.

Marjolaine Talbot-Lemaire in a clinic room.

Dr. Marjolaine Talbot-Lemaire has cared for patients with blastomycosis.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Yasmine Mehdi

In seven years of practice in Hearst, this was the first time that Dr. Talbot-Lemaire had been confronted with blastomycosis.

Unfortunately, what we saw in the patients who died was that the rate at which the severity and worsening of symptoms was occurring was completely beyond us.

A quote from Marjolaine Talbot-Lemaire, doctor

While most of the patients are now in stable condition, the task of Hearst’s medical team is not over, as the recovery period after blastomycosis lasts a year.

That’s twelve months of oral treatment twice a day every day, specifies Dr. Talbot-Lemaire. A follow-up clinic for patients from Constance Lake has also been set up at Notre-Dame Hospital in Hearst.

Evacuate or not?

While patients are still hospitalized and the source of the blastomycosis is still not identified, everything indicates that Constance Lake is engaged in a marathon more than a sprint.

Ramona Sutherland finds comfort in the fact that the current climatic conditions are not conducive to the growth of the fungus.

The snow is protecting us, she simply blurted out. But for the first time in my life, I’m not looking forward to spring.

The chief of Constance Lake says she does not rule out the possibility of an evacuation if the situation worsens. However, she considers that such a drastic solution is not yet necessary.

If there was an imminent danger to my community, I would of course evacuate. But that’s not the case right now, she argues.

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