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Health

More than 6,700 veterans from Afghan war receiving federal assistance for PTSD

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OTTAWA — Canada’s war in Afghanistan ended five years ago but the price of that effort continues to grow.

Newly revealed figures show the number of veterans from the war in Afghanistan receiving federal support for mental-health conditions nearly doubled between March 2014 and March 2018.

The figures are in a report obtained from Veterans Affairs Canada through access-to-information legislation and underscore the enduring toll the war has taken on the mental health of many military members who served there. They also highlight the importance of adequate mental-health services for veterans, which successive federal governments have sought to address over the years with mixed results.

The report was provided to former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould in January upon her appointment as veterans-affairs minister, a post she held for only a few weeks before resigning amid the SNC-Lavalin affair.

According to the document, more than 6,700 military members who served in Afghanistan received disability benefits for mental-health conditions in March 2018 — an increase of nearly 3,200 from the same month in 2014.

In both cases, the vast majority of those receiving benefits for mental conditions were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder “directly related to their service in Afghanistan,” according to the report.

In fact, PTSD was found to have been the top medical diagnosis for Afghan war veterans applying for assistance, as compared to hearing loss and ringing in the ears for service members who had not deployed to Afghanistan.

More than 40,000 Canadians served in the 13-year Afghanistan mission, which began with fighting the Taliban after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and progressed to trying to stabilize and rebuild the war-torn country.

That means nearly 17 per cent of all Canadian military personnel who deployed to Afghanistan have received federal assistance for psychological trauma sustained during the war.

Successive federal governments have been criticized for years over the support provided to such veterans, with concerns raised about financial assistance and long wait times for mental-health services.

Veterans Affairs Canada recently revealed nearly 40,000 veterans were waiting at the end of November to hear if their applications for financial assistance would be approved, 11,000 more than the previous year.

And more than one-third of them had been in the queue longer than 16 weeks, which was also an increase and a sign that veterans were waiting ever longer to find out whether they were entitled to assistance.

While Veterans Affairs did not say how many of those applications related to psychological injuries, an internal report obtained by The Canadian Press last year found demand for mental-health services routinely outstripped available resources.

The federal auditor general has also reported on long wait times for such services.

Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s spokesman Alex Wellstead said there has been an overall increase in the number of former service members who have “put trust in their government and come forward to get help.”

And while he acknowledged that “there is more work to do,” Wellstead said the government is spending billions of dollars on new supports and services as well as additional staff to ensure veterans get the help they need.

The newly released report shows the officials approved 96 per cent of the 2,453 applications for assistance from veterans with PTSD in 2017-18, whereas the approval rates for many other medical conditions were between 75 and 85 per cent.

At the same time, Wellstead noted the department recently established a partnership with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre to research psychological trauma and provide better advice and support to health-care professionals.

“When it comes to mental-health supports, we work with over 4,000 mental health professionals across the country to ensure veterans get the help that they need,” he said in an email.

“As well, we have hired over 700 new staff to replace the ones the previous government fired, which is helping the processing times. … There is more work to do, but we’re going to continue to do the important work that Canadians expect.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


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Alberta

Alberta seeing spike in syphilis cases

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Syphilis rates way up in Alberta

Rates of syphilis in Alberta on the rise

Infectious and congenital syphilis rates have escalated across the province over the past five years, with a sharp increase in 2018.

The rapid increase in syphilis cases has spurred Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, to declare a provincial outbreak and encourage Albertans to get tested and protect themselves.

“We need to emphasize for all Albertans: Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are a risk to anyone who is sexually active, particularly people who have new sex partners and are not using protection. I encourage anyone who is sexually active to get tested regularly. Anyone in Alberta can access STI testing and treatment for free.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chief Medical Officer of Health

In response to the sharp rise in 2018, a provincial outbreak coordination committee composed of Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services (AHS) and other provincial health officials has been activated. Over the next three months, the committee will develop a coordinated strategy and determine concrete actions to increase STI testing, promote public awareness and reduce the overall number of syphilis cases in Alberta.

“Sexual health is an important part of overall health. We are working with community partners to remove stigma and increase awareness about STI testing services throughout Alberta. If you are sexually active, make regular STI testing part of your health routine.”

Dr. Laura McDougall, Senior Medical Officer of Health, AHS

 

A total of 1,536 cases of infectious syphilis were reported in 2018 compared to 161 in 2014, almost a tenfold increase. The rate of infectious syphilis has not been this high in Alberta since 1948.

Congenital syphilis, which occurs when a child is born to a mother with syphilis, is a severe, disabling and life-threatening disease. While congenital syphilis cases were rare before the outbreak, there were 22 congenital syphilis cases between 2014 and 2018, one of which was stillborn.

Consistent and correct condom use is important protection against STIs such as syphilis. Like other STIs, the symptoms of syphilis may not be obvious. Health experts recommend sexually active people, regardless of gender, age or sexual orientation, get tested every three to six months if they:

  • have a sexual partner with a known STI
  • have a new sexual partner or multiple or anonymous sexual partners
  • have previous history of an STI diagnosis
  • have been sexually assaulted

Prenatal care including syphilis testing is available for all Albertans. It is critical that anyone who is pregnant seeks early prenatal care and testing for syphilis during pregnancy.

Anyone experiencing STI-related symptoms should seek testing through their local health-care provider. Call Health Link at 811, visit a STI or sexual health clinic or speak to a family doctor to find testing and treatment options.

 

Quick facts

  • 2018 case counts for infectious syphilis by AHS zone:
    • South Zone: 31 cases, an increase of 138.5 per cent compared to 2017
    • Calgary Zone: 206 cases, an increase of 7.3 per cent compared to 2017
    • Central Zone: 88 cases, an increase of 266.7 per cent compared to 2017
    • Edmonton Zone: 977 cases, an increase of 305.4 per cent compared to 2017
    • North Zone: 208 cases, an increase of 324.5 per cent compared to 2017
  • For further breakdown of STI 2018 numbers, see the 2018 STI and HIV Summary Report.
  • Alberta Health works with AHS and community organizations towards prevention, health promotion, outreach testing, education, harm reduction, and addressing stigma. Previous actions include:
    • Grants to the Alberta Community Council on HIV to support community organizations across the province to prevent and reduce STIs, reduce harm associated with the non-medical consumption of substances and support health in their own geographic locations.
    • Alberta Health has provided three one-time grants totalling a combined $2 million since 2017 to combat the rising rates of STI, including syphilis, focusing on raising awareness and education, reducing stigma and increasing testing and treatment.
    • Since 2016, Alberta Health Services and Alberta Health have been working with over 100 provincial partners to develop innovative approaches to increasing access to STI services across the province.
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Education

Manitoba university cuts ties with Ebola researcher pending RCMP investigation

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Manitoba university severs ties with researcher escorted off premesis

WINNIPEG — The University of Manitoba says it has cut ties with an Ebola vaccine researcher pending the results of an RCMP investigation.

A spokesperson says the school is ending the non-salaried adjunct appointments of Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng.

Qiu, a renowned virologist who received her original medical training in China, helped develop a vaccine for the Ebola virus at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Cheng also worked at the lab as a researcher.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said on Monday that it was taking steps to address an “administrative matter” at the lab after it advised the Mounties of possible policy breaches.

The laboratory is Canada’s highest-security infectious disease research facility dealing with deadly contagious germs.

Public Health said there is no risk to the public and the work of the lab continues.

The Canadian Press has been unable to reach Qiu or Cheng for comment.

The RCMP in Manitoba has confirmed it received a referral from the health agency, but has not confirmed whether Qui or Cheng is being investigated.

The Canadian Press

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