03/22/2012 05:04 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Feds extend funding for northern tuberculosis research, testing

IQALUIT, Nunavut - The federal government has extended a program to increase northerners' awareness of tuberculosis outside the capital of Nunavut.

The $100,000 project will build on work done last year in Iqaluit to educate hundreds of high-risk Inuit how to reduce the danger of the potentially fatal respiratory disease — which is much more rare in southern Canada.

"We really managed to get to the places where TB lived," Dr. Gonzalo Alvarez, a University of Ottawa researcher, said Thursday.

Last year's project saw local people distribute information on tuberculosis to high-risk neighbourhoods in Iqaluit. Facts about the disease and on how to minimize risk were delivered by Inuit, in Inuktitut, using videos on hand-held DVD units.

The volunteers were able to reach 444 people, about two-thirds of whom agreed to be tested. Nurses recommended about 100 of them receive some treatment for TB. Four active cases of the respiratory disease were found.

This year, workers will take the same project to two as-yet-unchosen communities outside Iqaluit with high TB rates.

Early detection is crucial to stop the disease's spread, Alvarez said.

"Those four active cases could certainly have passed the disease on to many people. The earlier that you're able to pick up this disease, the better it is for the community."

Tuberculosis is a germ-borne infection that most commonly attacks the lungs. It can cause shortness of breath, coughing, fever and death. It has been largely eliminated in the south — although it is present in some aboriginal communities — but it has never left the North since it arrived with whaling crews in the 19th century.

Poor air circulation, often caused by overcrowded and substandard housing, is a major vector of the disease.

In 2010, Nunavut suffered 100 new and active cases. That was the highest number in the territory's 10-year history and represented an infection rate 62 times the Canadian average. Worse, most of the new cases occurred in younger patients, suggesting the disease was being actively spread.

Working with local people and speaking to them in their native tongue is paying off, said Alvarez.

Some were afraid to talk about the disease due to lingering memories of thousands of Inuit being shipped off to southern TB hospitals in the 1950s.

"There's still a stigma about TB," Alvarez said.

Some Inuit didn't know the disease can now be treated in the North and is curable.

"A lot of people came to me and said, 'I was afraid you were going to ship me down south.'"

Alvarez's team tried a new diagnostic test last year and will work with another one this year. The tests are faster and cheaper than the old ones.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton