A national analysis of health data suggests tuberculosis is 185 times more common among Canada’s Inuit than it is among the mainstream population — and getting worse.
“The trend is the escalation in the rate and that’s what we need to be concerned about, particularly as the trend in the rest of the country goes down,” said Gail Turner, who helped analyze the data with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
While the agency hadn’t yet released its report on the infection rates, Canada’s national Inuit group Inuit Tapirisat Kanatami and the Assembly of First Nations were planning a news conference for Wednesday in Ottawa to draw attention to the situation.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Gail Turner, the head of Inuit Tapirisat’s national health committee who prefers to be referred to by both first and last name. “There has to be much more attention paid to the rates of TB among Inuit.”
It’s the first time that national data on the incidence of TB in Canada’s North has been closely examined, she said.
“It just hadn’t been collated before,” she said. “What we didn’t have was the expertise of an agency like the Public Health Agency of Canada, which now has access to all the Canadian data and our data and can do an analysis.”
What was found was that Canada’s four main Inuit regions had a TB incidence rate in 2008 of 157.5 for every 100,000 people. The rate in southern Canada is 0.8 per 100,000.
The analysts also found southern aboriginals had a tuberculosis rate 31 times higher than the national average.
The analysis also found that tuberculosis seems to be getting worse in the North. The rate of Inuit infection in 2004, for example, was 90 times higher.
“I think we knew rates were creeping up,” Gail Turner said.
She said the figures reflect active cases of tuberculosis. They don’t include people who may have been exposed to the disease but haven’t yet developed it.
“That doesn’t begin to tell you the rate of latent infection. If these people don’t remain in good health, that could become actual disease.”
Tuberculosis is also spreading to different age groups. While the highest rates of infection were found among the elderly, who may have first been exposed during the great TB epidemics of the ’50s and ’60s, the next highest rate was found in the 20-to-25 age group.
The rates varied widely from place to place. Analysts found some communities had no tuberculosis at all.
Tuberculosis is usually considered a disease of the poor. It flourishes in overcrowded homes filled with poorly nourished people who have substandard access to health care. All three conditions apply across the Arctic.
A recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that 70 per cent of Inuit preschoolers live in homes where there isn’t always enough food. The number of people per household is 50 per cent higher than elsewhere in Canada, and houses are smaller and older.
Inuit also have high smoking rates. In Monday’s budget speech in the Nunavut legislature, Finance Minister Keith Peterson said 53 per cent of Nunavummiut light up at least once a day.
Gail Turner, along with Inuk from Labrador, said the findings suggest the federal and territorial governments should develop a plan geared to the North to eliminate tuberculosis.
“We’re only 55,000 people scattered across a very large section of the country, but we feel that a concerted effort with a strong political will that truly is focused on reducing the rate of TB among Inuit could be very effective.”
The new information joins a long string of disturbing Inuit health indices. Recent studies have revealed that Inuit infant mortality is nearly four times the Canadian average and that Inuit children have the highest rate of hospital admission for lower respiratory tract infections in the world.
The rate of premature delivery is three times what it is in the south. Inuit suicides — 43 per cent of which are committed by youth under the age of 20 — are 11 times more common than the Canadian average.