Montreal disease experts tracking tropical infection in the Arctic | Montreal Gazette
A few years ago, several children in a remote northern Quebec community got very sick with intense diarrhea. Turns out they were infected with a dangerous bug more common in the tropics — but they caught the infection in the Canadian Arctic.
The outbreak hit at least 10 villages in Nunavik, affecting mostly children. The culprit was a microscopic intestinal parasite called Cryptosporidium. It was discovered for the first time in Nunavik, Quebec, by a Montreal team of infectious diseases experts at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in 2013.
Finding a tropical strain of Cryptosporidium in the Arctic where this disease was not previously known was a big surprise, said microbiologist Cédric Yansouni, the study’s senior author and McGill University professor in the division of infectious diseases in the medical microbiology department. The parasite is more common in developing countries in Africa and South America than in Canada.
Researchers documented 69 cases between 2013 and 2014, mostly in children under age five. But the disease is likely under-reported because most people do not bother to get tested unless they are extremely sick, he said. There is no access to local testing and samples have to be sent nearly 2,000 kilometres south to Montreal.
It’s not clear how such a tropical disease wended its way to remote communities in the Arctic or what caused the outbreak. Crypto lives in the intestines of mammals, including humans, and is usually spread by eating contaminated food, drinking water contaminated by feces, or through contact with infected individuals. Researchers tested the drinking water in the village where the outbreak began but found no contamination there. “We may never know how it got up there,” Yansouni said.
“It’s unlikely that initial infection was acquired from animals or contaminated waterways in the region,” Yansouni said. But the good news is that the outbreak prompted efforts to speed diagnosis locally without having to ship samples to Montreal, he added.