The 2009 H1N1 Health Sector Pandemic Response in Remote and Isolated First Nation Communities of Sub-Arctic Ontario, Canada
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On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization declared a global influenza pandemic due to a novel influenza A virus subtype of H1N1. Public health emergencies, such as an influenza pandemic, can potentially impact disadvantaged populations disproportionately due to underlying social factors. Canada’s First Nation population was severely impacted by the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Most First Nation communities suffer from poor living conditions, impoverished lifestyles, lack of access to adequate health care, and uncoordinated health care delivery. Also, there are vulnerable populations who suffer from co-morbidities who are at a greater risk of falling ill. Moreover, First Nation communities that are geographically remote (nearest service center with year-round road access is located over 350 kilometers away) and isolated (only accessible by planes year-round) face additional challenges. For example, transportation of supplies and resources may be limited, especially during extreme weather conditions. Therefore, remote and isolated First Nation communities face unique challenges which must be addressed by policy planners in order to mitigate the injustice that may occur during a public health emergency. The Assembly of First Nations noted that there has been very little inclusion of First Nations’ input into current federal and provincial pandemic plans. Disadvantaged groups know best how they will be affected by a public health emergency and are able to identify barriers and solutions. Therefore, the objective of my research was to gain retrospective insight into the barriers faced by three remote and isolated First Nation communities of sub-arctic Ontario (i.e., Fort Albany, Attawapiskat, and Kashechewan) during their 2009 H1N1 pandemic response. Culturally-appropriate community-based suggestions for improvement of existing community-level pandemic plans were also elicited. Collected data informed modifications to community-level pandemic plans, thereby directly applying research findings. Being a qualitative community-based participatory study, First Nation community members were involved in many aspects of this research. Semi-directed interviews were conducted with adult key informants (n=13) using purposive sampling of participants representing the three main sectors responsible for health care services (i.e., federal health centers, provincial hospitals, and Band Councils). Data were manually transcribed and coded using deductive and inductive thematic analysis to reveal similarities and differences experienced within and between each community (and government body) regarding their respective pandemic response. Another round of semi-directed interviews (n=4) and community pandemic committee meetings were conducted to collect additional information to guide the modifications to the community-level pandemic plans. Reported barriers due to being geographically remote and isolated included the following: overcrowding in houses, insufficient human resources, and inadequate community awareness. Primary barriers faced by government bodies responsible for health care delivery were reported as follows: receiving contradicting governmental guidelines and direction from many sources, lack of health information sharing, and insufficient details in community-level pandemic plans. Suggested areas for improvement included increasing human resources (i.e., nurses and trained health care professionals), funding for supplies, and community awareness. Additionally, participants recommended that complementary communication plans should be developed. As suggested by participants, community-specific information was added to update community-level pandemic plans. Remote and isolated First Nation communities faced some barriers during their 2009 H1N1 health sector pandemic response. Government bodies should focus efforts to provide more support in terms of human resources, monies, and education. In addition, various government organizations should collaborate to improve housing conditions, timely access to resources, and the level of coordination regarding health care delivery. Furthermore, as pandemic plans are dynamic, government bodies should continue to aide First Nation communities with updating their community-level pandemic plans to satisfy their evolving needs. These recommendations should be addressed so that remote and isolated western James Bay First Nation communities and other similar communities can be better prepared for the next public health emergency.