Days after the Canadian government announced it was evacuating 16 children from a northern Ontario First Nation, there's dispute over whether water problems, mold, and overcrowding are behind the severe rash that has afflicted its youngest residents
The mysterious outbreak of open sores and blisters has focused renewed attention on Kashechewan, which saw hundreds of people evacuated more than a decade ago over contaminated water.
On Wednesday, Health Canada confirmed to CBC the rashes on the children were caused by scabies, eczema and a bacterial infection called impetigo.
The scary looking scabs first gained attention when the former chief of Kashechewan First Nation Derek Stephen shared photos of his infant niece with the rash on Facebook. As media attention turned to the disturbing photos, he posted more of other children.
At first Stephen and others from the community speculated the rash was connected to the rampant issue of contaminated water in more than 86 First Nation communities across the country, including Kashechewan. But Canada's Health Minister later countered the suggestion that water is somehow to blame.
"It is our understanding that that is not the case," Health Minister Jane Philpott told reporters Monday. She said the water was tested on March 15, and found to be safe. "So this is not directly a water-related concern," she concluded.
She said "an infectious condition" could be a possible cause, but refused to get specific. She confirmed that some children were being evacuated from the community to receive medical attention, and assured reporters that all of the children are getting the care they need.
But it's not the first time Kashechewan experienced disturbing rashes on its children.
Chief Leo Friday said the new skin rashes look almost the same as the ones in 2005 that a Health Canada investigation found were caused by impetigo and scabies. VICE News requested the Health Canada investigation, but received no response.
The 2005 rashes occurred around the same time that health concerns in the community, which was on a boil water advisory, gained national attention. About 1,000 of the reserve's residents were evacuated after their water tested positive for elevated levels of E. coli.
'This is the face of Canada in the third world!'
"We didn't have good water back then, and they came up with some dollars to have somebody run our water system for, I don't know how many years, eight or nine," Friday said. "And then that money got cut down again, and the system is starting to deteriorate again."
"They never upgraded the plant since that time," Friday continued. "They said they were going to repair and upgrade it but they never did. That's the problem I guess that is catching up to us again."
Though Philpott said the water is not the issue, Friday said the community's water treatment plant is holding on by a thread, with the reserve relying on an emergency backup machine to filter their water. If it breaks, they won't have water for a week, he said.
"They said that the water, according to the tests, the report says it's good, except there were some numbers that didn't really look good to me," said Friday.
"Something is bothering the community — water, or air in the houses, or mold in the houses, or overcrowded in the houses. Something is bothering the community and the families. And I'm looking forward to getting to the bottom of this," the chief said.
Chief Elaine Johnston of Serpent River First Nation in southern Ontario said she had seen similar skin ailments when she worked in northern reserves as a nurse 20 years ago. "We had a lot of impetigo, and that's infectious and it does spread," Johnston said.
Caused by bacterial infection, impetigo is characterized by open sores and blisters similar to the ones in the photos shared by former chief Derek Stephen.
Johnston said the water may not be a direct cause of the rashes, but that a lack of clean water to bathe in and high numbers of people living closely together in poor housing can exacerbate the problem.
"You've got many issues that these people are experiencing, so of course if you develop a skin rash and it's contagious, it's going to be rampant," said Johnston. "So that's why I was surprised when I heard [from the Health Minister] that it's not related to the water."
Ahead of budget day on Tuesday, NDP critic of Indigenous Affairs and MP for Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus called for increased funding for proper infrastructure and health care.
"The pictures of children in Kashechewan are upsetting," Angus wrote on Facebook. "This is the face of Canada in the third world!"
"This crisis wasn't accidental — it is systemic," he wrote. "There must be a commitment to build the infrastructure and health services so the children in the northern communities can grow up healthy, safe and hopeful."
Philpott herself said she was concerned by the photos, and stressed that government officials are working in the community and that a team from a nearby town has been dispatched to canvas door to door for other children who may have the same condition.
"I can say that all of the children who are requiring care are getting the care that they need. There are some of course who have fairly significant health concerns, and those who require it will be evacuated out of the community to get care if necessary," she said.
" And the other thing that we'll be working on is important public health measures to help people understand how to prevent conditions like this from happening in the first place."
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont