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History repeating itself?

Canada's aboriginal communities are being hit hard by H1N1, echoing an earlier pandemic.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 11, 2008. Recently, there have been numerous cases of H1N1 in Canada's aboriginal communities. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

TORONTO — The specter of 1918, when Spanish flu claimed millions of lives around the world, looms especially large over Canada’s aboriginal communities.

Back then, the deadly influenza virus wiped out entire aboriginal villages, killing 90 percent of residents in some places. Now, health officials fear history might repeat itself.

The World Health Organization’s acting assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda, has raised the alarm over “a disproportionate number of serious cases” of swine flu occurring in Canada's aboriginal communities. And the federal government is accused of being slow to respond.

A Senate hearing this week investigated complaints that the government failed to deliver flu masks, hand sanitizer and respirators — items it is obliged to supply under Canada’s pandemic protocol — as the effects of the H1N1 virus in aboriginal communities worsened.

On Tuesday, Canadian health officials acknowledged that they hesitated in sending critically needed hand sanitizer — which contain up to 70 percent alcohol — for fear that some people would end up drinking the gel.

“It’s outrageous,” Kim Barker, public health adviser to the Assembly of First Nations, told the Senate committee.

Aboriginal people in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario have been hardest hit.

At the Sandy Lake community in northern Ontario, 135 members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation have been treated for swine flu. The nation’s grand chief is calling on the provincial and federal governments to treat all at-risk residents with the antiviral drug Tamiflu before the virus ravages the 2,500 people in his remote community, which isn’t accessible by road. Some have already been evacuated for treatment.

In northern Manitoba, two native towns — Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point — are in the grips of the influenza. Dozens have been evacuated for treatment. Throughout the province, 31 flu patients have been placed on respirators — two-thirds of them are aboriginal. The member of Parliament for northern Manitoba, Niki Ashton, has called the situation “a national disgrace.”

On Wednesday, Manitoba's aboriginal leaders declared a state of emergency in their communities because of swine flu. So far, 458 people in Manitoba have been infected. More than one quarter of those cases are from remote northern communities, where many aboriginal people live.

At last count, more than 5,700 people in Canada were infected with swine flu. Twenty have died.

Infectious disease experts say genetic disposition might be a factor in the rapid spread of swine flu among aboriginal Canadians. But all agree that pitiful living and social conditions are fueling the virus’ voraciousness.