March 24 marks World Tuberculosis (TB) Day. It’s meant to bring awareness to the disease, which is currently on the rise in Saskatchewan.
According to Tuberculosis Prevention and Control Saskatchewan manager Isa Wolf, things were looking promising just a couple of years ago. TB cases were declining in 2019, but since 2020, cases have continuously risen.
Like COVID-19, TB is an airborne disease. Symptoms can include fever, weight loss and respiratory issues like coughing. It can be treated with antibiotics, but it isn’t always simple to cure.
It takes about six months to treat and in some cases, people can become resistant to medication.
About four out of every 100,000 Canadians have TB. In Saskatchewan, about six out of every 100,000 people in the province have the disease.
While numbers may seem relatively low, Wolf said it’s still prominent.
“Tuberculosis is still very much a presence in Canada, it’s marked by great disproportionality due to health and equities,” Wolf said.
Forty per cent of cases in Saskatchewan are in the north, despite just four per cent of the province’s population living there. Sixty-three per cent of people diagnosed with TB are Indigenous.
“These (statistics) have everything to do with the social determinants of health, including some of those impacts of colonization and neo-colonization,” Wolf explained.
The Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) provides health care in 33 First Nations communities in northern Saskatchewan and has a team dedicated to treating people with TB.
“To consider the impact that a TB diagnosis or multiple TB diagnoses would have on an Indigenous community, you must consider the historical events in relation to TB and the Indigenous population,” NITHA TB advisor Tina Campbell said.
“It was not long ago where people were taken from their home communities and sent to residential schools and TB sanatoriums.”
There are multiple factors leading to the recent rise in TB cases in the province.
Like many areas of health, COVID-19 has impacted how TB can be treated. Tuberculosis Prevention and Control Saskatchewan has been travelling less to impacted communities and has relied on virtual appointments.
NITHA has three TB nurses who trained community members prior to the pandemic, building trust along the way. Some of that community work has come to a halt, but the nurses have still been able to treat infected people directly.
“We’re very lucky to have them and everybody, of course, who has to receive treatment is very lucky to have them as well,” Campbell said.
Both Campbell and Wolf agree there is still a stigma around TB, and bringing more awareness to the disease is necessary.
“Awareness and TB education will hopefully allow us to kind of make our way back to where we were prior to the pandemic,” Campbell said.
Wolf expects to see over 100 TB cases provincially this year.
Health Canada doesn’t have recent national TB data and in an emailed statement said “the 2017 data is the last nationally compiled surveillance report.”