Feds in Constance Lake First Nation investigating source of blastomycosis outbreak

Community has nine ‘probable’ cases of lung infection and another eight are being investigated.

Constance Lake

The chief of Constance Lake First Nation in northern Ontario says a full investigation is underway as the community battles an outbreak of a lung infection.

“We are working really hard to find the source of this problem, to contain it and limit its exposure, if not to get rid of it,” said Chief Ramona Sutherland, who has declared a state of emergency due to recent sudden deaths and illness of community members from probable cases of Blastomycosis.

She made the comment in a video posted to Facebook Monday, noting there are at least 11 different places in the community that have been identified for sampling.

The community, located about 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay, proclaimed a state of emergency the same day, saying several residents were thought to be sickened by the infection caused by a fungus in the area.

According to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the number of cases is “concerning” and both the federal government and province of Ontario are working with the First Nation on the outbreak.

“As of November 21, 2021, there were approximately 9 probable cases of blastomycosis and approximately 8 persons under investigation for blastomycosis,” said a statement from ISC. “ISC is working directly with Chief Ramona Sutherland, the Porcupine Public Health Unit, the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Matawa Chiefs Council, and other health partners to identify and address community needs and ensure those affected have access to the resources they need.

“A representative from Indigenous Services Canada arrived in [the] community today to provide on-the-ground support for as long as necessary.”

The department said it’s working with a Toronto-based laboratory “specializing in mould and fungi” to send a PHd mycologist to investigate the source of the outbreak. Also, the hospital in Hearst, Ont., has closed its operating room and is “setting up an observation unit for probable cases and persons under investigation” for the infection.

The investigation in the community started on Sunday.

Blastomycosis is a lung infection typically caused by a fungus that grows in moist soil, leaves and rotting wood, and is spread when a person inhales small particles of the fungus into their lungs.

Symptoms can range from a mild cough that does not go away to serious breathing problems. Some people may not show any symptoms, while others may develop a long-term form of pneumonia.

According to ISC, Blastomycosis is “not contagious, and is not transmitted from person to person, nor between animal and humans.”

Sutherland said in her video update that the community was working to find what was triggering the infections.

“There’s too many people getting sick from this, so it’s got to be in our reserve somewhere, in our community somewhere, or maybe all these people; we should find out if they’re all interconnected …we need to find what the connection is.”

Sutherland said the community is looking into evacuation plans as a precaution but isn’t planning an evacuation just yet.

In the meantime, she said people will be tested for blastomycosis and encouraged community members to seek medical attention if they have any symptoms, including a cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, a sore back, fever or chills.

“Just please go and get yourself checked out,” she said.

With files from the Canadian Press