January 21, 2016 6:00 pm
Updated: January 21, 2016 10:15 pm

Refugee flu outbreak ‘paralyzes’ Alberta social services: memo

WATCH: There's another sign the surge of Syrian refugees in some places is pushing the system to the brink. Global News has obtained a letter that says so many refugees are ill when they arrive in Edmonton, that health care staff are unable to cope. Jacques Bourbeau has our exclusive report.


The number of “acutely ill” Syrian refugees residing in Edmonton in recent weeks has been much greater than expected, an internal letter reveals, and at least one social services agency has been struggling to cope.

The letter, obtained by Global News earlier this week, was written by a director at the East Edmonton Health Centre. In the message, Karen DeViller writes “the refugees arriving to Edmonton are more acutely ill upon arrival than what we were told to expect” and that Edmonton’s Catholic Social Services (CSS) agency “is inundated with constant needs to transport these refugees to an ED (emergency department) or medicentre or urgent care clinic.”

WATCH: Alberta addressing refugees’ health concerns individually: medical officer

Story continues below

DeViller then explains in the letter that the health centre is seeking to recruit nurses to help doctors treat the refugees in their hotels or other temporary lodging, thus reducing the need to transport so many of them.

“The volume is so high that CSS is almost paralyzed to do anything else because of this – so we are exploring other options to support them,” she writes.

A spokesperson for Catholic Social Services said that while the letter seems alarming, it was triggered by something very common during Canadian winter: the flu.

“What we have is a case of the flu going through the Syrians who have arrived in Edmonton,” said spokesperson Jason Gariepy. The agency is assisting approximately 254 Syrians, he said, and approximately 50 per cent of all the children in that group have fallen ill. Adults have also caught it, but only one person required a hospital stay.

“What we know is that they did not arrive in Canada with any pre-existing conditions. They didn’t arrive in Canada with any virus, infection or flu … They simply came to Edmonton in the peak of flu season.”

Gariepy did acknowledge that the mini-epidemic is draining CSS resources, with staff making three to five trips per day to medical clinics and hospitals. An Arabic-speaking doctor is now coming in to the CSS welcome centre to see the refugees twice a week to reduce the need to transport them, he noted, and they are receiving flu shots.

DeViller’s letter was sent to all staff at the Devon General Hospital just outside of Edmonton earlier in the week. Efforts to reach DeViller for comment on Thursday were not immediately successful.

“We are seeing a large amount of chronic illness,” Dr. Chris Sikora, with Alberta Health Services said. “Mental illness is another aspect we can commonly see, and then things that are related to travel, whether that be influenza, other respiratory illnesses, also gastrointestinal disease.”

WATCH: Alberta able to help refugees with health concerns, doctors want to assist

Refugees coming to Canada are screened repeatedly for health issues and are required to undergo medical examinations before being admitted to the country. According to a recent report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the most common ailments identified among refugees during the screenings are hypertension, diabetes, visual or hearing impairments and cardiovascular disease. The prevalence of each of these conditions among those screened is still very low, however.

Sikora said AHS staff are working with the families to address any immediate health needs and long-term health supports. He said it isn’t a surprise that the newcomers would get the flu during flu season in Alberta.

“We can work with it. We can accommodate,” he said. “What we are doing more of is pulling in our family physician groups and helping get those families linked fast.”

AHS is also working proactively by having medical staff visit the refugees’ accommodations, Sikora said.

Is it putting a strain on the health system?

“We’ve committed, as a society, to take in refugees,” Sikora said. “I think that’s the greatest thing about Canadian society. So, no, it’s not a burden.”

The reaction within the medical community is the same, he said.

“I see a large number of people in the health care field stepping up, taking ownership, and raising their hand saying, ‘I want to help. I want to provide good, clinical, patient-centric care to this group of patients.'”

Not a widespread issue

Global News made efforts to contact other health agencies and social services agencies in cities across the country on Thursday to determine if they have been facing similar problems.  None of the agencies reached in Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary or Ottawa said they had encountered an unusual number of very sick arrivals.

WATCH: Syrian refugee children toboggan, experience snow in Ontario

Rita Chahal of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council reported that there were some flu symptoms among that province’s refugees after Christmas, but nothing too serious. A handful were hospitalized, she added, but it has not put any undo strain on the system.

“We are managing,” Chahal said.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Catholic Center for Immigrants said a number of Syrian refugees have developed colds within the first few days of their arrival, but otherwise they have been healthy.

The federal government has committed to welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of February. As of Thursday morning, 12,425 had arrived.

Citizenship and Immigration told Global News all potential permanent residents, which includes refugees, are required to undergo an Immigration Medical Examination as part of the application process to come to Canada. The exam includes any or all of the following:

• a physical examination;
• a mental examination;
• a review of past medical history;
• laboratory tests;
• diagnostic tests; and
• a medical assessment of records respecting the applicant.

“Based on an analysis of the currently available information from the Agency’s Quarantine Officers at points of entry, it is clear that the proportion of serious medical conditions among the refugee population is very low,” a Citizenship and Immigration spokesperson said, adding cases of children with fever, colds or flu are expected at this time of year.

“At this point we did not receive any indication that Syrian refugees coming to Canada pose a risk to the health of Canadians.”

WATCH: Tired and stressed, Syrian refugees are arriving in Edmonton and getting sick with the flu. A senior health official says it’s taking a toll on support staff. Kendra Slugoski explains.

© 2016 Shaw Media

Report an error


Want to discuss? Please read our Commenting Policy first.

Global News