MACLEAN'S REPORTS

TRAGEDY IN THE OUTPORTS: How a stubborn bug will kill 100 Newfoundland children this year

HAROLD HORWOOD October 5 1963
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

TRAGEDY IN THE OUTPORTS: How a stubborn bug will kill 100 Newfoundland children this year

HAROLD HORWOOD October 5 1963

TRAGEDY IN THE OUTPORTS: How a stubborn bug will kill 100 Newfoundland children this year

MACLEAN'S REPORTS

E. COLI, TYPE 0111:B4 is a mean, virulent species of bacterial organism big enough to be seen plainly under a microscope. It causes gastroenteritis, a disease that afflicts children with diarrhea and vomiting. When the children are very young, it can be fatal. This summer, E. coli, type Olli: B4 swept through isolated sections of Newfoundland, infecting over one thousand children with gastroenteritis. So far sixty of them have died, all children under twelve months, and the epidemic is still raging. There is little the doctors can do to stop it.

Ironically, Newfoundland's economic improvements have helped to spread the disease. It has been carried on the new network of roads to outports that only a few years ago would have been relatively isolated and relatively safe. The last time Newfoundland had a gastroenteritis epidemic, in 1949, it killed seventy-four children. The number of deaths from the disease fell to fewer than twenty a year during the fifties, but in 1961 it rose to thirty and in 1962 to sixty. Gastroenteritis thrives in bad sanitation and sanitation throughout most of Newfoundland is still primitive. This year the disease flared up in January but seemed to die down again early in the summer. Then, late in the summer, hospitals began to receive a flood of stricken children. The Newfoundland department of health, in its weekly bulletins, warned the hospitals to take extra precautions in nurseries and to prepare isolation wards. The department tried to play down the epidemic spread of the disease for fear of creating a panic.

The panic came anyway. When the St. John’s Evening Telegram broke the story late in August, the death toll had already reached over fifty. Frantic parents whose children had been taken away to isolation wards jammed

hospital switchboards seeking reassurance. On the night the story broke, one St. John's hospital was practically immobilized while the staff tried to comfort worried parents.

The best way to cure gastroenteritis is with antibiotics and transfusions of liquids and plasma. But few outport doctors arc equipped to give this kind of treatment. So the Newfoundland government began a series of mercy flights using aircraft from its own ambulance service and chartered planes and even chartered helicopters. Most of the flights have been to island-spattered Notre Dame Bay, about 150 miles northwest of St. John’s, and many of them have been small epics of courage. One pilot landed in the teeth of a northeaster to rendezvous with a father who had wrapped his baby in oilskins and rowed across the open water in a trap skiff. Another pilot had to tear a two-year-old boy out of his parents’ arms in Burnt Bay. The child had never been outside his tiny village and he was terrified. Sometimes the pilots have to make agonizing decisions: land and risk disaster or fly on and abandon a sick child. Marsh Jones, a tall, gaunt veteran of fourteen years of bush flying, chose to bring his plane down in an unsheltered cove in the midst of a gale to pick up a two-year-old girl at the tiny outport of Rose Blanche. The landing snapped one of the wires on his wing. Repairs took two days, but Jones brought the little girl out to a St. John’s hospital and her life was saved. Provincial officials estimate that by the end of the year, the pilots will have completed between eight and nine hundred mercy flights.

By that time, if the best guesses of Newfoundland public health authorities are correct, £. coli, type 0lll:B4 will have killed one hundred babies. There is little they can do to stop the disease. There is no known form of immunization. At this late date there is no time to bring about radical improvements in sanitation. The best the doctors can do is tell parents that a baby who gets to a hospital in time has a ninety-five percent chance of recovery. They can also point to Cape Breton Island, where E. coli, type 0111: B4 struck late this summer, bringing death to six children. Nova Scotian public health authorities moved fast to prevent the spread of the disease from hospital isolation wards. The outbreak now appears to be diminishing, and provincial health officials are hopeful but cautious. As one of them put it: “We’re up against a very stubborn bug. It’s not the kind that comes up quickly and disappears quickly.”

HAROLD HORWOOD