Medicine will cut ‘shocking’ lung infections in Inuit babies

A new study has found that Indigenous babies in parts of Canada’s North have the highest rates of serious lung infection in the world. (iStock)
A new study has found that Indigenous babies in parts of Canada’s North have the highest rates of serious lung infection in the world. (iStock)
Indigenous babies in parts of Canada’s north have the highest rates of serious lung infection in the world, research shows.

But it also shows that giving a medicine called palivizumab to prevent infection can dramatically reduce that rate in some regions.

Rates of infection ‘startling’

“The rates of admission (to hospital) were quite startling,” says Dr. Anna Banerji, lead author of the study out of the University of Toronto.

In northern part of the province of Quebec, researchers found almost 50 per cent of all babies were admitted to the hospital with a lung infection in the first year of life. In the western part of the territory of Nunavut, the figure was more than 40 per cent of babies.

“Those are phenomenal numbers,” she says, noting they are higher than in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America or anywhere else.

In the hardest-hit places, one infant in every 30 had difficulty breathing and was admitted to intensive care wards in hospitals, most often very far from home.

Several contributing factors

No one really knows why these rates are so high, says Banerji, but contributing factors include overcrowding in homes, poor nutrition and even malnutrition, a lack of breastfeeding, smoking in the home and there may be a genetic component that makes Inuit children more vulnerable to lung infection.

Prevention program will save lives

Banerji is eager to point out the good news in this study. That is, that some 40 per cent of lung infections are caused by the RSV virus and there is an antibody that is effective in preventing infection in up to 96 per cent of cases. And a cost analysis shows that it would be less expensive to prevent infection this way than to treat very sick babies.

As a result of this research, the government of Quebec has decided to implement a prevention program in its northern region of Nunavik. While Banerji says governments must address the underlying factors contributing to infant respiratory infections, the decision to provide the antibody as prevention is a good one.

“I think that’s going to save a lot of hospital admissions, suffering and some lives as well. So, it’s really a good news story.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  International nursing students gather in Saskatchewan to talk northern health care, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Study finds lower cancer rates among indigenous Sámi, YLE News

Norway: Nordic diet a heart-smart alternative, Radio Sweden

Russia:  Reindeer herders evacuated from anthrax zone in Russian Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden:  The Sami Health Paradox, Radio Sweden

United States:  Alaska Villages without running water or health aides: Federal officials hear about challenges, Alaska Dispatch News



Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Lynn has dedicated her working life to journalism. After decades in the field, she still believes journalism to be a pillar of democracy and she remains committed to telling stories she believes are important or interesting. Lynn loves Canada and embraces all seasons: skiing, skating, and sledding in winter, hiking, swimming and playing tennis in summer and running all the time. She is a voracious consumer of Canadian literature, public radio programs and classical music. Family and friends are most important. Good and unusual foods are fun. She travels when possible and enjoys the wilderness.

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